This story is part of our continuing series Misinfluencers Inc., which highlights the myriad ways in which celebrities and high-profile social media accounts are used and misused to disseminate questionable information.
This report follows our original reporting on the company Providr, which created viral content for celebrities and high-follower Facebook pages to share in return for a fraction of the ad revenue generated by those pages. Our previous reporting highlighted how Providr skirted Facebook’s rules to gain an advantage in this economy.
If you logged into Facebook this year, chances are material originating with the company “Providr” crossed your timeline. And more likely than not you saw that material shared from the Facebook page of a celebrity or a prominent “influencer.” That content, which would not necessarily have been accurate or responsibly reported, would likely have been uplifting, adorable, terrifying, or anger-provoking — the dominant flavors of viral Facebook fare. In most cases, the pages sharing this content would have received a share of the advertising revenue generated by the ads embedded in those articles.
Providr’s business model of producing viral content for high-follower pages to share in exchange for a portion of ad revenues was far from unique. Years earlier, an entire economy had developed around the concept of enlisting pages with many followers to share articles and split ad profits. However, on 25 January 2018, Facebook announced they would be changing their rules regarding branded content effective 28 February 2018, stipulating that Facebook page owners could no longer “accept anything of value to post content that you did not create or were not involved in the creation of, or that does not feature you.”
Although this policy change had no discernible impact on most Facebook users, several social media companies had built an industry around recruiting popular Facebook pages to share viral content in return for ad revenue splits, a practice now banned under current Facebook policy. Many of those social media companies, including the prominent firm Diply, announced that they would be suspending operations because their business models were not sustainable under Facebook's new rules.
Providr CEO Gary Lipovetsky, however, bragged in a since-deleted post that he had a solution which would make his company's business model compliant with Facebook. Lipovetsky’s solution was the inclusion of custom software that appended the name of the Facebook page or celebrity sharing Providr’s story below that of the actual author, giving each article the appearance that it had been co-authored by, or "featured," each person sharing the post. Lipovetsky repeatedly assured his clients that Providr remained compliant with Facebook's rules.
Chaos Follows Snopes’ Original Reporting on Providr
We first reported on Providr’s sleight-of-hand in a 26 May 2018 post, and as part that reporting we emailed Facebook a request for comment on Providr's deceptive use of code to generate co-authorship bylines. At the time, a Facebook spokesperson told us that such a practice would, in theory, be contrary to their policies, and that pages violating such policies could expect to see their distribution and monetization “significantly” reduced (or even be shut down).
On the same day that we contacted Facebook, email and analytics records we later obtained from multiple individuals who had worked with Providr showed that Facebook had likely revoked Providr's inclusion in their "Instant Articles" program, slashing the reach of Providr's content dramatically.
Instant Articles is a feature Facebook offers to publishers that allows their content to be distributed natively within the Facebook app. This process, Facebook avers, can expand the reach of pages shared. It also allows Facebook themselves to place ads in those articles, providing them with a cut of the profits generated by the articles as well.
To make matters even worse for Providr, on 29 May 2018 Facebook again updated their branded content rules in a way that would be crushing to Providr’s business: They began to crack down on “manufactured sharing,” or the “inauthentic” sharing of the same articles on multiple unrelated pages.
In an unsolicited email following our original report, one anonymous individual claiming an association with Providr described "the shit show that's taking place" thanks to the loss of these publishing privileges. Ever since our May reporting, Providr has allegedly withheld money it owes their publishing partners. (Providr CEO Gary Lipovetsky declined to comment on a detailed list of questions we sent him, citing ongoing discussions with Facebook. Facebook likewise declined to respond to a detailed list of questions, or offer comment on anything regarding Providr’s status as a publisher for this story.)
Several events began to unfold when Facebook allegedly revoked Providr’s Instant Articles access on the day we inquired about Providr’s practices. First, publishers who were sharing those Providr links saw a dramatic decrease in the amount of money they were earning from the Providr posts they shared on their pages. A publisher who uses the pseudonym Clea and operates the Facebook page “Mommy Needs Vodka” saw the reach (and revenue) from Providr’s posts decrease dramatically, as reported in her Providr dashboard. The explanation she was given by Florind Metalla, the manager of publisher relations for Providr, was that the company had “noticed a glitch with Instant Articles and [were] looking into it with our team at Facebook.”
On 22 June 2018, Clea received an email from a Providr publisher relations executive named Paul Williams that did not begin reassuringly: "I wanted to notify you that Providr is still operational and that they will make an announcement soon to update you all. In terms of May payment, it will be made at the end of [June]."
That payment never arrived, according to Clea. A separate Facebook publisher partnered with Providr, who wished to remain anonymous, reached out to tell us that, like Clea, they did not receive their Providr revenue payment. In early July, that publisher emailed the accounting department at Providr and received the following automated response (which suggested many other publishers had also made similar inquiries about missing revenues) blaming Facebook for Providr's inability to make payments:
Another former Providr publishing partner, a man in Pakistan who runs several high-traffic Facebook pages and wished to remain anonymous for fear that Facebook would punish his pages, told us via Skype that he received the same canned response when he asked about his payment. His frustration was palpable:
I can't do anything. I'm sitting in a different country. It's all about trust, you know? If you are working with someone online, it's all about trust, and they just screwed us not paying. I'm getting married next month and I was collecting that money [for marriage expenses]. So I'm very disappointed and very sad they did this to us.
After Clea's payment failed to arrive by 30 June, she received a message sent on 2 July 2018 from Prashast Singh, Providr’s manager of operations, which described the ad revenue situation in a bit more detail:
I'm reaching out today to inform you about payment for May 2018. As you know, monetization is done through Facebook Instant Articles. As of now, Facebook has put our May 2018 payment on hold. We have been trying to communicate with Facebook to get clarity on when the payment will be made.
We heard back from Facebook on Friday, June 29 and they advised us that they will let us know about the payment at the end of July 2018. As soon we hear more from Facebook, we'll let you know.
The third consequence of Facebook’s actions against Providr — for some the most damaging aspect — was that pages such as Clea’s, which she had spent years building up independent of her association with Providr, were either suspended, shut down, or blocked from sharing any links whatsoever on Facebook.
Though she was never told so explicitly by Facebook, Clea suspects that the few Providr articles she had shared caused her page to be banned permanently from sharing links. Several other publishers who also shared Providr content were placed on temporary bans, so it remains unclear why Clea’s page might have faced a permanent ban on link-sharing.
These events, Clea maintained to us in an email, meant that her brief, eight-week association with Providr effectively destroyed a business she had been building since 2010 that had evolved to become her sole source of income:
I've worked so hard to build up my page and business since 2012. It began as a blog in 2010, and the page was supposed to just be part of that, but it took off so successfully that I focused on that instead. My page has been so successful in part because I interact with my page fans, and they are very loyal to me. It's been absolutely devastating to get a permanent link ban when I was not even given a warning by Facebook that I was committing an infraction.
(We have not independently assessed Clea’s page for Facebook compliance, and Facebook declined our multiple requests to comment on the status of her page, citing privacy concerns.)
One could advance the logical argument that the arrangement Clea had with Providr, in which she would receive payment through her Facebook page from a third party in exchange for posting the third party's content outside the context of Facebook’s branded content system, was a clear violation of existing policy at the time. This argument would suggest that action against her page was justified, regardless of Providr’s involvement in the matter.
Based upon correspondence and internal company documents provided to us by several former publishers, however, one could also make a compelling argument that Providr aggressively recruited people using false claims of Facebook compliance. In this scenario, Providr was ultimately responsible for the destruction of Facebook pages that had made a good-faith effort to follow Facebook's rules. “[I] fully believed I was in compliance with Facebook right up until I got the link ban.” Clea wrote, “I am completely devastated.”
Providr’s Aggressive Recruitment Tactics
Providr’s efforts to recruit high-follower pages was aggressive and full of what turned out to be unfounded confidence. In his opening pitch to prospective Facebook page owners, according to emails obtained by Snopes, Providr operations manager Paul Williams included an infographic in his emails claiming the company's approach was “100% Facebook compliant and verified through [our] direct relationship with Facebook.”
As recently as 12 July 2018, Providr’s corporate page still stated that “Facebook likes our content [because] we have a close working relationship with Facebook [that] enables us to help our celebrity and social media influencer partners develop their accounts, grow their audiences, and increase their reach on Facebook.”
Williams first reached out to Clea in October 2016. She told him she wasn’t interested in working with Providr because she was under the impression that without a verified check mark on her page, she would not be able to collect income under Facebook’s rules. She ignored multiple follow-ups from Williams before she finally responded to a March 2017 email. In his response to her concerns, Williams wrote:
I 100% understand why you may be reluctant to post external content. It's really important to know that the content provider is 100% compliant with FB policies. We work with hundreds of publishers globally, both blue verified and not verified. We do a lot of work with FB so we actually have a liaison that is our point of contact when they make changes. Their role is to ensure we stay 100% compliant so we've never had an issue with producing external content that is harmful to pages.
In total, Williams contacted Clea at least 20 times between October 2016 and August 2017 without successfully convincing her to partner with Providr. Then Florind Metalla, the manager of publisher relations at Providr, initiated the recruitment process all over again.
On 30 January 2018, Clea received another unsolicited email, this time from Metalla. “I'm contacting you with an opportunity regarding your Facebook Page ... working with Providr to earn a passive income,” he wrote. The email ended with an offer: “I'd like to create an account for you so that you can start testing our content,” he said. “We have no long-term contracts and you can terminate with us at any time.”
Clea did not respond to this email, either. Between January and February 2018, Metalla emailed Clea eight times with canned follow-up pitches. By the end of February 2018, however, Facebook’s new branded content rules were about to be instituted, and Clea used the introduction of these new rules as an opportunity to turn down Providr politely:
Hi Florind, after 2/28, Facebook pages are no longer allowed to post links from websites that are not ours. I've been with Diply for the past year, and they are terminating their program Feb. 28, due to Facebook's new rule about branded content. I do not want to risk having my page unpublished by posting links ... If not for the new policy, I would have enjoyed the opportunity with Providr.
Metalla was not swayed by Clea’s accurate characterization of the Facebook publishing market and convinced her to talk things over via telephone. In a follow-up email on 8 March 2018, Metalla sold Clea on Providr’s use of fabricated bylines (the dodge that informed our original reporting on Providr), asserting that it was an acceptable way around Facebook's rules:
Our understanding of the policy update is that Facebook requires Page owners to contribute to the post by writing a review of the articles that you are sharing. We have also developed new technology that will include your Page Name, Links and FB Page Picture on our editorials. The bio is customizable.
“Unfortunately, Florind was very persuasive,” Clea wrote to us in an email describing her decision to finally partner with Providr. (Metalla did not respond to our request for comment on this story.)
Now, Providr allegedly owes Clea money, and she has lost the ability to post links on her Facebook page with over three million followers, which she tells us has been the primary source of income for her and her family. While some people allegedly punished for posting Providr content have had their privileges restored, Clea has not, and Facebook has told her their decision is final and unappealable.
Providr 2.0: Social Pulse Marketing, Inc.
On 21 June 2018, after Clea made several unsuccessful attempts to contact Metalla to discuss the money she was owed and the status of her now largely inoperable Facebook page, Metalla informed Clea that he was leaving Provdr effective the next day. Clea stated that Metalla told her "He was starting with a new media company for a ‘fresh start.’”
The company that Metalla had joined for that “fresh start” was a company based out of the same Toronto office space that Metalla’s email signature indicated belonged to Providr. That company, Social Pulse Media, was co-founded by the same two people who started Providr: Gary Lipovetsky and Michael Tulman.
These two individuals, along with Paul Williams (the person currently in charge of publisher relations at whatever is left of Providr) have been in business together since at least 2009, when they started a company called “DealFind.com” which they subsequently sold in 2012.
Florind Metalla’s title at Social Pulse Marketing, an apparent promotion, is "Director of Strategic Partnerships," according to their website: "He works closely with our partners to ensure that the right strategies are in place and the right teams are involved to ensure smooth and flawless execution."
While Social Pulse Marketing has, according to Gary Lipovetsky’s LinkedIn profile, been in existence since 2016 and first established a web presence in early 2017, the influx of former Providr executives to it appears to be a more recent phenomenon. Maninder Singh, listed as Social Pulse’s Director of Campaign Management, still displays his job on LinkedIn as the Digital Campaign Specialist at Providr Inc. Oleksii Вorisov is, or was, Director of Technology at both Providr and Social Pulse.
“He [Lipovetsky] is going to declare bankruptcy,” the page owner who provided us with the email she received from Providr’s accounting team regarding delayed payment predicted to us on the telephone. Every page owner we spoke with expressed that same concern: that Lipovetsky and his associates might be attempting to get out of their debt to publishers by shifting resources to Social Pulse Marketing before declaring bankruptcy at Providr, though we cannot confirm this assertion.
On 16 June 2018, just two weeks before Providr would miss its deadline for paying out May revenues to publishers, a picture posted to his private Instagram account showed the Ontario-based Lipovetsky “discovering the Hamptons” with his wife:
On 5 July, a new character with the title of "Director of Public Relations" for Providr responded to one of Clea’s repeated requests that she be paid what she is owed. Instead of assuaging her fears, this individual doubled down on the claim that the situation was all Facebook’s fault, and that Providr was committed to fighting for everyone’s money:
As per the agreement, we are on a revenue share which means you'll get the revenue owed to you if we get it. I am sorry about this but we are on the same boat here. Please wait till the end of July till we hear back. We are contacting the Winklevoss twin’s [sic] lawyers and please be assured that we won't let it go either.
We cannot speak to the claim about Providr's contacting or retaining an attorney once employed by the twin entrepreneurs famous for suing Facebook, but it would appear that publishers are not "on" the same boat as Providr's executive staff, who look to be safely afloat in a nearly identical ship called Social Pulse Marketing, Inc.
If you have more information about Providr Inc, or other companies engaged in similar practices online, please contact this reporter at firstname.lastname@example.org.