The conventional wisdom surrounding the “popular content report” that Facebook released last week is that it obscured more than it revealed. The company’s attempt to demonstrate that most users don’t regularly see divisive news stories in their feeds has been criticized for only providing the highest possible view of the data. The most shared domain on Facebook is YouTube.com? Great thanks.
But in the past few days I’ve been spending more time looking at the data Facebook actually has did part. And while it’s true it tells us little about hot-button issues like the spread of misinformation about COVID-19 or the rise of vaccine hesitation, the report arguably reveals something just as damning: Nearly all of the most-viewed posts on Facebook around the world. effectively plagiarized from elsewhere in the past quarter. And some of the same audience-building tactics that allowed Russian meddling on the platform to flourish in 2016 remain effective.
Today I want to look at two aspects of the data. First, we look at the most viewed posts on Facebook in the past quarter to see where they originally came from. Second, we’ll look at one of the most popular links on the platform, which may be making an attack on US military veterans.
It’s hard to come up with a good idea for a viral social media post. That’s probably why most of Facebook’s most popular pages have stolen their ideas from elsewhere in the past quarter.
Report details from Facebook the top 20 most viewed posts on the network in the past three months. One of the posts was removed before Facebook published it. Of the remaining 19, however, only four appear to have been original. The remaining 15 were first published in at least one other place and then re-uploaded to Facebook, sometimes with minor changes.
Take the number 1 entry in the report, a meme from motivational speaker and author Gaur Gopal Das. It’s a jumble of letters and words under the message “First three words you see are your reality.” It was originally posted over a year ago, but is still being watched: 80.6 million people have seen it so far.
But it was not original to Das. The meme was posted on Twitter two weeks earlier by the Ghanaian rapper M.anifest. (It may not be original to M.anifest either; the image he posted looks quite distressed, as if it’s been copied and re-copied many times. His tweet is the earliest instance of the meme I could find using Google’s reverse image search, though.)
What about No. 2? In April, musician Ace Gutta posted an image read “I’m Old But I Look Young Challenge. Drop a pic 30 and up,” along with a link to his Instagram. More than 61 million people saw it and 5 million responded. But other people had posted this “challenge” all over Facebook in 2020, according to a search I did – here’s a message from a user last October. Here is another one from March.
Up next: In May, the Facebook page for Texas’ hottest morning show, Daytime with Kimberly & Esteban, dared to ask: “What’s something you’ll never eat, no matter how hungry you get?” 58.6 million people were confronted with this question, and 2.7 million of them answered. There are versions of this question floating around Twitter and meme pages for year.
No. 5 found “wife, mother, author” Christina Watts start a fight on whether sugar belongs on spaghetti that visited 58.6 million souls; the comedian Steve Harvey had tweeted the same question less than a week before.
It takes until the sixth post before we find something vaguely original – a post from President Biden that got 52.8 million views. He seems to have crossposted the message from Twitterjust like its predecessor did.
This is more or less the case for the rest of the top 20: many viral questions stolen from Reddit, Quora, Twitter or other sites, rewarded with huge engagement on Facebook.
Perhaps you are rolling your eyes right now. So some dumb meme pages stole memes from other dumb meme pages – who cares? And I allow the Facebook pages of the daytime talk shows that are in Texas generally don’t adhere to the zero-tolerance plagiarism policy that journalists do.
In addition, Facebook has long been home to re-appropriated content, from the freebooting scandal during the 2017 turn to video to the more recent phenomenon of Instagram’s Reels being inundated with videos with TikTok watermarks.
But this kind of dumb, cheap growth hacking should sound familiar to anyone who paid even the slightest attention to the 2016 election. The infamous Russian internet research firm has ordered an army of trolls to build large followings on innocent-looking Facebook pages using a wide variety of engagement baits, then gradually shifted those pages to share more divisive political memes.
That’s all much more difficult now, thanks to a variety of measures Facebook has taken to make it harder for people to disguise their identity or country of origin. The company now routinely removes networks of pages whose creators are suspect. And it is worth saying that in the most recent election, inauthentic behavior of the variety of 2016 did not play a significant role.
Most importantly, Facebook now has a policy against “building an abusive audience” – switch topics and repeatedly rename a page to gain more followers.
But it seems remarkable that for domestic actors, the tactic not only works, but five years later is the most effective way to reach a large audience. Steal some questions that went viral elsewhere, spam them to your page and presto, you’re one of the most viewed links for the entire quarter on the world’s largest social network.
I spoke to the company about this today and it said reposting content from elsewhere is not against policy. (It would be very difficult to control, among other things.) For Facebook to want these kinds of posts removed, the company says there must be something deceptive going on: lying about who posted them, or where they live, for example.
Facebook has come a long way in removing inauthentic people from the platform. But what I would consider inauthentic content dominates the most viewed posts on the site. In the short term, these messages may turn out to be less damaging than the COVID misinformation and Big Lie fuss that we often get excited about.
In the long run, however, they seem to offer a motivated opponent with a broad attack surface.
There’s something else in the data that bothers me – something that points to some of the dark forces in the ecosystem. The plagiarism that dominates the top 20 of Facebook links is probably doing it mostly for influence and ill-gotten gains in audience growth. But some of the other characters here seem to have more immediate monetary incentives.
Since the Facebook report came out, commentators have noticed the high number of spam networks in the list of most viewed links. (This is separate from the most viewed list messages described above; the list of links contains cumulative views for a link on Facebook; the previous list only counts views for an individual post.) Most memorable, the researcher Ethan Zuckerman explored the origin of the No. 9 link on Facebook’s list, a talking agency of former Green Bay Packers players that gained 87 million views thanks to players adding the link to low-effort meme posts.
My eyes were drawn to the 15th most viewed link, which leads to an online store selling a commemorative flag of Vietnam. (“Normally $24.00. But since you’re a hero, you only have to pay $20.00 and you can have a collectible.”)
The links are promoted through an endless series of memes posted every few hours on Facebook pages marketed to veterans. You can find it on the page “Veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan” and, more logically, the Vietnam Veterans page. Elsewhere, the Desert Storm veterans page links to the same online store, where a Desert Storm memorial flag is sold.
Together they have more than 350,000 followers. And their link was viewed 37 million times in three months. Who manages these pages? Are they veterans? The pages have no clues and the admins have not responded to messages from me today. (One of them did see my message, though, according to Facebook Messenger.)
But they seemed familiar to Krisstofer Goldsmith, who spent year exploring how bad actors will impersonate members of military communities to lead various grifts and influence operations. He even said that he had previously reported the network to Facebook. He said, among other things, that these types of networks often steal plagiarism memes from authentic military communities to smuggle merchandise.
“It takes advantage of the death and suffering of military personnel,” said Goldsmith, a former researcher for Vietnam Veterans of America who now runs an open-source intelligence agency called Sparverius. (It’s named for the American kestrel — “the smallest bird of prey in the Western Hemisphere,” Goldsmith told me.)
Goldsmith said Facebook has been slow to intervene in cases where Page owners misrepresented themselves as veterans to sell merchandise to members of military families. “As someone who is trying to help Facebook understand that this has been damaging my community for three or four years now, I am extremely upset that I still have to do this,” he said.
Facebook told me it would look into the network. It noted that it is often difficult to distinguish a page owner’s intent from the content posted, and in the absence of evidence of misleading content, he may be hesitant to act. People have different opinions about what counts as “spam”; the dividing line is not always clear.
At the same time, the network of pages here appears to be purpose-built to evade spam detection. By posting heartbreaking memes targeting service workers and their families, they’ve made it much less likely that the memes will be reported as spam, even if they post the link to the same flag of convenience every hour.
Be that as it may, Facebook’s list of popular posts and links tell the same story: The way to succeed on the platform is to copy someone else’s idea.
And if you have the . studied history of facebook, maybe that comes as no surprise.
This column was co-published with platform game, a daily newsletter about Big Tech and democracy.