As the discussion about Facebook’s role in helping spread “fake news” and Russian propaganda in the lead-up to the 2016 presidential election reached the highest level of government in September 2017, another story about how shadowy sites are using the social media giant to influence people churned in the background.

Through an unknown mechanism, these junk sites are managing to get their content posted on verified celebrity Facebook pages and spread to millions of users who find themselves inundated with spam, fake news, ads, and tracking software. This is about Facebook as an arbiter in what is known as the “attention economy” — essentially, the notion that people’s attention spans are commodities — and the wide-ranging effects of the battle to grab that attention.

According to Matt Britton, chief executive officer of New York-based marketing technology firm CrowdTap, part of the race for readers’ attention is known as influencer marketing: a relatively new and largely unregulated area of digital advertising in which brands use celebrities or influential social media personalities to endorse products, thus encouraging fans to buy them. He told us:

Basically more eyeballs are now on mobile devices than on TVs and newspapers, and when those eyeballs are on phones, they’re often looking at social media and at content generated by both people and companies. The Kardashians [for example] have amassed millions of people that not only follow what they do but try and replicate what they do. So when they post a product of say, skin cream or make-up and say “this works,” people buy it. Some brands have found that’s more effective than standard advertising.

As things currently stand, he said, there is little oversight over this form of commerce. The only regulation on such content comes from the Federal Trade Commission, he told us, which requires influencers disclose that by endorsing a product, they are essentially advertising it:

If a person gets paid or gets a product for free and endorses it, they need to disclose that, otherwise they are misleading the consumer. A lot of people have gotten into hot water with the FTC because they’ve been busted for not complying. An influencer has a responsibility to disclose to their audience if they get paid or not — it‘s really influencer’s responsibility.

The difference in the cases we’ve been tracking, however, is that no physical product is promoted; instead, clickbait sites use content to generate ad revenue from click-throughs — although the “influencer marketing” principle is the same, Britton said. The pages sharing links under celebrities’ names and blue “verified” checks could be viewed as endorsements of the content.

Facebook users who “liked’ the pages of celebrities with large followings are inundated with spam and fake news, such as a long-debunked story about a dead mermaid washing ashore, or clickbait smut about an “obese white woman twerking”:

For weeks, we have been tracking 29 fake domains that are posted to verified celebrity pages, including rapper 50 Cent and comedians Martin Lawrence and Tommy Chong, and the now-defunct musical group LMFAO, who collectively have more than 85 million followers. Many of the links shared on those celebrity pages are essentially “domain spoofing” Facebook, meaning that when those links are clicked, they redirect users to Jellyshare.com, a spam web site banned by the social media giant.

As demonstrated above, one link (and others like it) took users from Facebook to a landing page that contains only the story’s image, title, and a button allowing viewers to continue reading. Once users engage with the landing page, a simple line of code initiates a redirect to Jellyshare.com, which is full of fake news, clickbait, dozens of advertisements, and ad tracking software.

The tactic seems to be an effort to circumvent Facebook’s spam filter, which normally warns users posting JellyShare links that they are posting spam. The fake domains, however, do not trip the spam filter and warn the user.

The day after we reached out to Jellyshare, we noticed that the site no longer had a presence on the celebrity pages mentioned above. Instead, another site with the same design, Culturehook.com, was posting to LMFAO’s and Martin Lawrence’s timelines. The Culturehook posts, like the Jellyshare ones, were dark posts, meaning that they show in the news feed of the celebrities’ followers, but not on the celebrities’ profile pages. However, instead of “domain spoofing” Facebook, the Culturehook posts took advantage of Facebook’s “Instant Articles” product to distribute and monetize their content.

We contacted the FTC to inquire about links shared from celebrity profiles, but that agency told us they have no comment on the matter at this time. 

Jonathan Albright, research director at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University, told us that on a larger scale, the junk content that verified pages share with millions of Facebook users adds to the chaos in the digital information ecosystem — even as Facebook has attempted to crack down on “fake news” in the 2016 presidential election’s aftermath:

It comes back down to the fact that Facebook from the beginning was set up and sells their services as a place where you can reach real people, where they put all their data, have all their conversations, where their offline networks are.

Specifically, Albright told us, this misdirection causes confusion among readers about what to believe and potentially lowers the bar of credulity across the board. Bad information has tangible social consequences, especially as technology that allows highly-individualized personality profiling from social media use becomes more advanced:

We need to rethink how we deal with this, because this is not a small problem. It’s going to get worse, because the behavioral targeting is getting better and better with the goal being to cause measurable changes in behavior. You can’t just wash your hands, close your campaign down, or cash your checks and do your accounting and walk away. Society still has these things echo through it. These things keep recirculating.

The fact that Jellyshare is tricking Facebook’s software with fake domains not only confuses readers but, like all fake news, draws attention away from credible news sources. If attention spans are oxygen in an “attention economy,” then junk sites are suffocating legitimate journalism by drawing readers away from it:

The amazing thing about the URL is that it allows you to look at the domains, and domains have credibility signals in them. With Facebook links, everything is embedded, and it removes all of those.

When you post a story that looks like ABC.com, but it’s really ABC.com.co, older people or people that are busy, they don’t see the difference, so it’s super easy to hack those credibility signals when you paste links that Facebook nowadays automatically previews and converts. It removes all the credibility signals, and people can exploit that.

We were unable to determine who owns Jellyshare.com or is benefiting from the ad revenue generated by diverting celebrities’ fans to the Jellyshare web site. We sent emails to three addresses listed on Jellyshare, two of which bounced. The third message, sent to the webmaster, drew no response. We also sent a message to the site’s Facebook page and likewise received no response.

Amanda Ruisi, publicist for 50 Cent (whose real name is Curtis Jackson), told us that on 27 September 2017 the rapper’s team ended their contract with Wild Hair, a social media firm who had been providing the rapper with Facebook content marketing services:

Mr. Jackson does not have an exclusive contract with any digital agencies. The content was not approved, once brought to his attention all has since been removed.

Our phone calls and emails to representatives for Martin Lawrence and Tommy Chong were not returned.

How the content in question was posted to the 50 Cent’s Facebook page and fanned out to his nearly 40 million followers is a question with no obvious answer. Alex Holmes, the founder of Wild Hair, does not appear to know how it happened. He told us that his company had enjoyed a long and positive working relationship with 50 Cent and added that the junk content was responsible for his loss of that contract:

Our business is entirely different from this — we’ve had good partnerships with our clients and Facebook by increasing traffic to reputable publishers via celebrity pages, but none of these crazy sites.

A digital marketing company called Cirqle, purportedly based in Amsterdam and New York, increased the confusion when they put out a June 2017 press release claiming that they and Crossford, another digital media company, had “exclusive” access to 50 Cent’s and other celebrities’ Facebook pages. Holmes said his company has partnered with Crossford in the past, but neither he nor Crossford CEO Arham Muhammad knew of any exclusive content-posting agreement with Cirqle.

We reached out to Cirqle to ask how the content was posted to those celebrities’ Facebook pages, and CEO Steven Lammertink told us:

We have exclusive access to 50 cent, Martin Lawrence and LMFAO (amongst others) Facebook channels for our clients.

[Crossford] manages the accounts, we just have access to negotiating more affordable rates. [Crossford] again distributes the content.

When we followed up with Lammertink asking how it was that neither Wild Hair or Crossford knew of any such “exclusive access” agreement, we received no response.

CrowdTap’s Matt Britton said he does not think that the exploitation and fraud currently taking place in the influencer marketing space will continue, and he urged Facebook page administrators to take extra security precautions:

I think it’s going to get snuffed out [by Facebook], and there’s going to be a flight to quality for brands. There’s a lot going on right now in that space — it’s not regulated, there’s no association tracking or validating it — and it’s ripe for fraud. 

We also reached out to Facebook for comment on this story but received no response.

Sources:

Lane, Ed. “Obama Personally Warned Mark Zuckerberg After the Election About the Extent of Fake News on Facebook.”
  CNBC. 24 September 2017.

Shane, Scott, and Isaac, Mike. “Facebook to Turn Over Russian-Linked Ads to Congress.”
  The New York Times. 21 September 2017.

Fair, Lesley. “Three FTC Actions of Interest to Influencers.”
  FTC.gov. 7 September 2017.

Liao, Shannon. “Facebook Now Blocks Ads From Pages That Spread Fake News.”
  The Verge. 28 August 2017.

Bosker, Bianca. “The Binge Breaker.”
  The Atlantic. November 2016.