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Meta has made millions from ads that spread disinformation

When Meta’s Mark Zuckerberg was called to testify before Congress in 2018, he was asked by Senator Orin Hatch how Facebook made money. Zuckerberg’s response has since become something of a meme: “Senator, we’re postponing ads.”

Between July 2018 and April 2022, Meta made at least $ 30.3 million in advertising revenue from networks it removed from its own platforms for participating in Coordinated Illegal Behavior (CIB), according to data compiled by WIRED. Margarita Franklin, head of security communications at Meta, confirmed to WIRED the company will not return the advertising fees if a network is taken down.

A report of The Wall Street Journal estimates that by the end of 2021, Meta had absorbed 17 percent of the money in the global advertising market and made $ 114 billion from advertising. At least some of the money came from ads purchased by networks that violated Meta’s policies and that the company itself flagged and removed.

Photos: Meta

“The advertising industry worldwide is estimated at about $ 400 billion to $ 700 billion,” says Claire Atkin, co-founder of the independent watchdog Check My Ads Institute. “It’s a big brush, but no one knows how big the industry is. Nobody knows what’s going on in there. “

But Atkin says part of what makes information, including ads, feel legal on social media is the context in which they appear. “Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp, this entire network within our internet experience, is where we make contact with our closest friends and family. . It is a place on the internet where we share our most intimate emotions about what is happening in our lives, ”says Atkin. “This is our trusted location for connection.”

For nearly four years, Meta has released periodic reports identifying CIB networks of fake accounts and pages aimed at misleading users and, in many cases, repelling propaganda or disinformation in ways designed to look organic and public change opinion. These networks can be managed by governments, independent groups or public relations and marketing companies.

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Last year, the company also began addressing what it called “coordinated social harm,” where networks used real accounts as part of their information operations. Nathaniel Gleicher, head of security policy at Meta, announced the changes in a blog post, noting that “threat actors are deliberately blurring the lines between authentic and unauthentic activities, making the application more challenging in our industry.”

However, this change demonstrates how specific the company’s criteria for CIB are, meaning that Meta may not have documented some networks using other tactics at all. Information activities can sometimes use real accounts, or be managed on behalf of a political action committee or LLC, making it more difficult to categorize their behavior as “unauthentic”.

“One tactic used more frequently, at least since 2016, was not collisions, but real people going out and posting things,” says Sarah Kay Wiley, a researcher at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University. “The CIB reports from Facebook, they get it quite a bit, but it’s really hard to spot.”

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Russia was responsible for most of the ads in networks that identified and subsequently removed Meta as CIB. The United States, Ukraine, and Mexico are the most targeted, though almost all of the campaigns that target Mexico are linked to local actors. (Meta’s public earnings documents do not divide how much the company earns per country, only by region.)

More than $ 22 million of the $ 30.3 million was spent by just seven networks, the largest of which was a $ 9.5 million global campaign linked to the right-wing, anti-China media group behind the Epoch Times.


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