The dirty secret behind Ben Shapiro's extraordinary success on Facebook
|Judd Legum and Tesnim Zekeria||Jun 25, 2020||79||14|
Founder of The Daily Wire, Ben Shapiro. (MARK RALSTON/AFP via Getty Images)
The success of The Daily Wire, the website run by right-wing pundit Ben Shapiro, on Facebook is mind-boggling. The site has a small staff and primarily aggregates content from Twitter and other news outlets. Typically, its articles are very short, usually less than 500 words, and contain no original reporting.
And yet, last month, The Daily Wire was the seventh-ranked publisher on Facebook, according to the analytics service NewsWhip. Articles published in The Daily Wire attracted 60,616,745 engagements in May. Engagement is a combination of shares, likes, and comments, and is a way of quantifying distribution on Facebook. The reach of The Daily Wire's articles was equal to the New York Times (60,722,727) and more than the Washington Post (49,219,525).
But that actually understates how well The Daily Wire does on Facebook. While the New York Times published 15,587 articles in May, and the Washington Post published 8,048, The Daily Wire published just 1,141. On a per article basis, The Daily Wire receives more distribution than any other major publisher. And it's not close.
What explains The Daily Wire's phenomenal success on Facebook? Popular Information revealed part of the answer last October. But the full story is much darker.
Popular Information has discovered a network of large Facebook pages — each built by exploiting racial bias, religious bigotry, and violence — that systematically promote content from The Daily Wire. These pages, some of which have over 2 million followers, do not disclose a business relationship with The Daily Wire. But they all post content from The Daily Wire ten or more times each day. Moreover, these pages post the exact same content from The Daily Wire at the exact same time.
The undisclosed relationship not only helps explain The Daily Wire's unlikely success on Facebook but also appears to violate Facebook's rules.
How to convert bigotry and fear into shares and likes
The network of large Facebook pages promoting The Daily Wire are all run by Corey and Christy Pepple, who are best known as the creators of Mad World News. Facebook pages controlled by the Pepples include Mad World News (2,176,003 followers), The New Resistance (2,857,876 followers), Right Stuff (610,809 followers), America First (577,753 followers), and American Patriot (447,799 followers).
The reach of these pages is massive. Content posted to these five pages has generated more than 31 million engagements on Facebook over the last three months, according to CrowdTangle, an analytics service owned by Facebook. To put that in perspective, the reach of the network over this time period exceeds the New York Times (28 million engagements), the Washington Post (20 million engagements), and HuffPost (19 million engagements).
How did the pages like Mad World News and The New Resistance grow so big? They did it by exploiting racism, religious bigotry, and violence.
Here is how it works. Most of the content on the five pages in this network consists of links to MadWorldNews.com and TadHaps.com, two websites owned by the Pepples. These sites identify incendiary stories — that are frequently months or years old — that prey on prejudice and fear. The sites then rewrite the stories with no indication that the story is old. This generates a "new" link that is able to thrive in Facebook's algorithm.
For example, TadHaps.com published a story on June 19, 2020, with the headline "Family Displays ‘Southern Pride’ Sign, Stranger Confronts Them With Gun." The article describes how a man named Mark Wilson was standing on the side of the road with his family, waving Confederate flags. According to Wilson, a man drove up and pointed a gun at him and other family members. The man then drove away without harming anyone.
It's not mentioned in TadHaps article, but the incident occurred five years ago, in 2015.
On June 20, 2020, the TadHaps article was then posted to Mad World News, The New Resistance, Right Stuff, America First, and American Patriot Facebook pages. It quickly racked up about 5,000 total engagements on Facebook.
Other stories published on TadHaps in the last few days include a remorseless Black gang member who dragged a police officer behind a stolen car, a fast food restaurant that was changed the name of menu items to be more respectful of Muslims, and a 13-year-old girl who was raped by five men. None of the stories mention that these incidents occurred months or years old.
The purpose of TadHaps is not to inform but to manipulate the Facebook algorithm by recycling old stories that elicit emotional reactions from conservatives.
The Daily Wire's tactics and Facebook's rules
Why do these toxic Facebook pages keep sharing content from The Daily Wire? Do the Pepples just really like Ben Shapiro's site? The Daily Wire did not respond to a request for comment. But the behavior of these pages strongly suggests that The Daily Wire and Mad World News, LLC, the company owned by Corey and Christy Pepple, have a business relationship.
The Daily Wire is the only website outside of those owned by the Pepples that is shared by these five pages. And each of the five Facebook pages shares at least ten Daily Wire links every day. Conspicuously, the Facebook pages share the exact same links from The Daily Wire at the exact same time.
For example, all five pages shared this article from The Daily Wire on Aunt Jemima at 7:30 PM on June 19, 2020.
The pages all shared this article from The Daily Wire from Chick-Fil-a at 9:30 PM on June 18, 2020.
The pattern repeats over and over again, ten times or more every day. It's behavior that strongly suggests that Mad World News, LLC is being paid to promote content from The Daily Wire.
If that's the case, The Daily Wire could be violating Facebook's rules. Facebook allows pages to be paid to post content, but the sponsorship must be disclosed using Facebook's branded content tool.
We define branded content as a creator or publisher's content that features or is influenced by a business partner for an exchange of value. Creators must use the branded content tool to tag the featured third party product, brand, or business partner with their prior consent. Branded content may only be posted by Facebook Pages and profiles and Instagram accounts with access to the branded content tool.
The activity also appears to violate Facebook's prohibition on coordinated inauthentic behavior, which includes a ban on activity to "artificially boost the popularity of content."
In response to an inquiry from Popular Information, a Facebook spokesperson said it investigated the behavior of these pages and found no violation of Facebook's rules. The spokesperson said Facebook could not determine if there was a financial relationship between the pages controlled by Mad World News LLC and The Daily Wire, and that the branded content policy did not apply to posting links.
The notorious Mad World News
There is no reason that the network of Facebook pages run by Corey and Christy Pepple should have flown beneath Facebook's radar. Years ago, the Pepples became notorious for exploiting Facebook with poisonous content.
At first, Mad World News was effectively the couple’s blog: they rewrote published articles, added their own commentary as “Christian Conservatives,” and shared their posts on Facebook. As the Pepples' blog gained traction on Facebook, they began including digital ads and experimenting with the type of stories they featured. Divisive stories, in particular, performed disturbingly well. “We [all] like division…We thrive on it,” said Christy Pepple to The New York Times’ The Daily in 2018. At the time, the site drew roughly 20 million views each month. One month the Pepples made more in digital ad revenue from the site than their combined salaries in the previous year, according to The Daily.
Most of this revenue, however, is generated from deceptive, if not outright false, content. NewsGuard reports that Mad World News repeatedly makes “distorted or misleading claims, including about discredited conspiracy theories.” In 2016, for example, an inaccurate article on late-term abortions received 1.1 million Facebook engagements, “making it the most shared article about abortion on Facebook,” The New York Times reported.
In May of this year, NewsGuard flagged a Mad World News piece that accused Anthony Fauci of conspiring with Bill Gates as part of “sinister plans to ‘set up’ President Donald Trump.”
The outlet frequently runs stories targeting Black, Muslim, and immigrant populations. Recent story headlines include: “Atlanta Cops Walk Out In Protest Over Democrat DA’s ‘Sick Secret’ In Brooks Case,” “NYC Black Man Knocks Down 92-year-Old White Woman, Thanks to BLM & De Blasio,” and “Millions Donated to ‘Defund the Police’ Secretly Directed To Biden’s Campaign.”
Despite this, Mad World News' stories rarely elicit “disputed” labels or disclaimers from Facebook. On the site’s “About Us” page, the platform attempts to excuse itself of fact-checking procedures, claiming that its content “expresses a personal opinion, advocates a point of view, or is self-promotional” and should be treated as such “for the purpose of fact-checking.”
The Daily Wire's history of playing by its own rules
The Daily Wire's apparent business relationship with Mad World News isn't the first time the site has been caught flouting Facebook's rules. Last October, Popular Information revealed a clandestine network of 14 large Facebook pages that purported to be independent but exclusively promote content from The Daily Wire in a coordinated fashion.
The network clearly violated Facebook's prohibition on "inauthentic behavior," which includes concealing "a Page’s purpose by misleading users about the ownership or control of that Page." But Facebook refused to take action. "Our investigation found that these are real pages run by real people in the U.S. and do not violate our policies," the company said.
Months later, after Facebook implemented a new policy around page ownership, The Daily Wire was forced to acknowledge it owned and controlled 13 of the 14 pages in the network. Facebook has still taken no action.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has a relationship with Shapiro, who Zuckerberg has hosted at his home. According to a source who has spoken with Shapiro, Zuckerberg and Shapiro remain in direct communication.
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