Fake news still has a home on Facebook

Stuart Thompson collected and analyzed data on thousands of Facebook posts for this article.

On the morning of January 6, 2021, Christopher Blair's fake news empire was abuzz.

In some months, Blair had earned up to $15,000 by posting false stories on Facebook about Democrats and the election, reaching millions of people every month.

But after a mob of Trump supporters attacked the U.S. Capitol, his growing feat came to an abrupt halt. Facebook appeared to recognize its role in fomenting an insurrection and changed its algorithm to limit the spread of political content, false and otherwise. Mr Blair witnessed her engagement flatline.

“It just collapsed – anything political collapsed for about six months,” he said.

Today, however, Blair is fully recovered, and then some. His fake posts — which he says are satire intended to mock conservatives — are receiving more interactions than ever on Facebook, coming in at 7.2 million interactions already this year compared to one million in all of 2021.

Blair survived Facebook's changes by distancing himself from politicians and focusing on culture war topics such as Hollywood elites and social justice issues.

When Robert De Niro appeared outside a Manhattan courthouse last month to criticize former President Donald J. Trump, for example, Blair published a false post claiming that a conservative actor had called him “horrible” and “wicked.” . He received nearly 20,000 shares.

Many writers like him — who publish falsehoods on fringe websites and social media accounts in an attempt to gain clicks that can translate into lucrative advertising revenue — have also turned to culture war topics. So far this year, only a quarter of Facebook content has been rated “false” by PolitiFact, a fact-checking site, focused on politics or politicians, while nearly half focus on issues such as transgender athletes, celebrities liberals or health alternatives.

The success of these posts highlights a growing reality on Facebook and similar platforms: Fake news still finds an audience online.

The breakthrough was so successful that Blair saw a number of contestants emerge, many of whom called their posts “satire.” They copied its contents and used artificial intelligence tools to enhance their work.

“After what happened on January 6, there was some progress, but then almost immediately that progress was reversed,” said Paul Barrett, deputy director of New York University's Stern Center for Business and Human Rights, which studies disinformation online. “I think we're actually more vulnerable to this today than we were in the spring of 2021.”

A spokesperson for Meta, which owns Facebook, responded by highlighting the company's disinformation policy and its efforts to combat falsehoods by limiting the spread of some low-quality content.

Blair, a 52-year-old former construction foreman, is an avowed liberal.

He doesn't see his work as fake news. He has long defended himself, including in profiles in the Washington Post and the Boston Globe, as a comedian who trolls conservative Facebook users into believing news they should clearly question. He compares his work to that of Sacha Baron Cohen, the British comic who often misleads conservative Americans in an attempt to ridicule them. Blair uses a little “satirical” label on every image he posts on Facebook.

But his headlines are often indistinguishable from many of the falsehoods posted on social networks.

Facebook allows satirical pages, whether or not they use the “satire” label. But the term has also become a popular defense for fake news operators, who typically reveal they are satirizing only in an obscure section of their Facebook pages, or sometimes omit it altogether.

“It's a cat-and-mouse game,” said David Lazer, a professor at Northeastern University who has studied disinformation. “Wherever there is a loophole in enforcement, that's where the business will go.”

Facebook's attempts to limit the spread of political content have led Blair and his aides to search for a new approach.

“We were killing Hillary Clinton every Saturday in the most ridiculous ways,” said Joe LaForm, a 48-year-old truck driver who identifies as a liberal and contributed to Blair's Facebook page. “You know, she was getting hit by a monster truck at a monster truck rally.”

“We stopped doing that,” he added, due to Facebook's attempts to limit the spread of political content.

Today, Blair posts dozens of fake stories on the social network every week on his main account, which has more than 320,000 followers and more than 225,000 likes. She populates her posts with a colorful cast of celebrities: actors like Tim Allen and Whoopi Goldberg or musicians like Jason Aldean and Kid Rock. She often sets them up in dramatic but entirely fictional feuds over culture war topics. An April post claiming that Beyoncé had been criticized for “dressing up” by releasing country music received more than 50,000 shares and 28,000 comments.

“If it's someone from the right, I reward him. If it's someone on the left, I'll punish them,” Blair said in a telephone interview. “It's my method.”

This wasn't the only breakthrough Blair had to make. After Facebook began downgrading posts that linked to low-quality websites, Blair began posting only images and memes. Now, when a post appears to be a hit, she will add the link as a pinned comment.

“I know exactly what happened, in every situation, and why,” Blair said of the ups and downs of posting on Facebook. “I'm constantly adapting.”

These pivots have had repercussions across the industry, with similar falsehoods appearing on Facebook pages with even larger audiences, such as “Donald Trump Is My President,” which has more than 1.8 million followers. Some posts are shared directly to groups full of conservatives, such as the fan pages of Tucker Carlson and Jesse Watters, two right-wing hosts.

Many of the reports described themselves as news outlets. NewsGuard, a company that tracks online misinformation, identified 15 such accounts, with names like “Daily News” or “Breaking News USA,” that shared falsehoods about companies like Disney, Paramount, Nike and Tyson Foods.

“There are tons and tons and tons of headlines being churned out every single day,” said Coalter Palmer, a NewsGuard analyst who conducted the research. “It's a lot of culture war stuff.”

Today, Blair faces stiffer competition from pages that use artificial intelligence tools to write false stories about the celebrities and culture war issues he highlights. NewsGuard has identified nearly 1,000 websites using artificial intelligence tools to write unreliable news articles, up from 138 a year ago.

That competition includes SpaceXMania, a competing network of Facebook pages with at least 890,000 followers.

“My material, my cast of characters, my keywords, my hot buttons — they take it all in,” Blair said of recent plagiarism. “They put it in an artificial intelligence program and it made the news. There's nothing original about it.”

When Mr. Blair recently wrote a fake story about Harrison Butker, a National Football League player who has attracted national attention for his conservative views on women, SpaceXMania quickly followed suit with stories of its own about Mr. Butker, gaining hundreds of thousands more comments than Mr Blair.

The operator behind SpaceXMania is based in Pakistan and identifies himself by the name Shabayer, according to Facebook messages with Blair that he shared with the New York Times. According to the messages, he cited Blair as a “role model” for his start-up.

“I'm a social justice warrior liberal troll serving satirical nonsense with a mission,” Blair said. “Sells fake news to American conservatives from Pakistan for profit.”

A SpaceXMania representative initially responded to an email, but stopped responding after a reporter sent questions.

Many of the SpaceXMania articles were written entirely by artificial intelligence tools like ChatGPT, according to a Times analysis that used software to detect text written by the AI.

“He's probably the most effective at using my stuff,” Blair said. “He is trying to escape from the AI, but he will never succeed.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *