Fake news still has a place 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 buzzing.

Mr. Blair had made up to $15,000 in some months posting fake stories on Facebook about Democrats and the election, reaching millions of people each month.

But after a mob of Trump supporters attacked the U.S. Capitol, his growing business came to an abrupt halt. Facebook appeared to recognize its own role in fomenting an insurrection and tweaked its algorithm to limit the spread of political content, false and otherwise. Mr Blair has seen his engagement stall.

“It kind of collapsed – everything political collapsed for about six months,” he said.

Today, however, Mr Blair has made a full recovery, and then some. His fake posts – which he says are satire intended to mock conservatives – are receiving more interactions than ever on Facebook, already reaching 7.2 million interactions this year, compared to one million for all of 2021 .

Mr. Blair has survived Facebook’s adjustments by moving away from politicians and toward culture war topics like 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, Mr. Blair posted a fake message claiming that a conservative actor had called him a “horrible” and “ungodly”. She received nearly 20,000 shares.

Many writers like him – who post falsehoods on fringe websites and social media accounts in an attempt to get clicks that can translate into profitable ad revenue – have also delved into culture war topics. So far this year, only a quarter of Facebook content deemed “fake” by PolitiFact, a fact-checking site, focused on politics or politicians, and nearly half focused on issues such as transgender athletes, liberal celebrities 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 pivot has been so successful that Mr Blair has seen a whole host of competitors emerge, many of whom also describe their messages as “satire”. They copied its content and used artificial intelligence tools to boost their work.

“After what happened on January 6, there was some progress, and then almost immediately that progress was reversed,” said Paul Barrett, a law professor at New York University who studies online disinformation . “I think we’re actually more vulnerable to this today than we were in the spring of 2021.”

A spokesperson for Meta, owner of Facebook, reacted by highlighting the company’s misinformation policy and its efforts to combat falsehoods by limiting the distribution of certain low-quality content.

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

He does not consider his work to be fake news. He has long defended himself, including in profiles in the Washington Post and the Boston Globe, as a comedian who tricks conservative Facebook users into believing information they clearly should question. He compares his work to that of Sacha Baron Cohen, the British comedian who frequently misleads conservative Americans in an attempt to ridicule them. Mr Blair uses a small “satire” tag on every image he posts on Facebook.

But its headlines are often indistinguishable from the many lies posted on social media.

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 their satirical nature only in an obscure section of their Facebook pages, or sometimes omit it altogether.

“It’s a game of cat and mouse,” said David Lazer, a professor at Northeastern University who has studied misinformation. “Wherever there is a gap in law enforcement, that’s where the activity will go.” »

Facebook’s attempts to limit the spread of political content prompted Mr Blair and his contributors to seek a new approach.

“We used to kill Hillary Clinton every Saturday in the most ridiculous way,” said Joe LaForm, a 48-year-old truck driver who identifies as liberal and who contributed to Mr. Clinton’s Facebook page. Blair. “You know, she was getting run over 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.

Mr Blair now 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. He fills his posts with a colorful cast of celebrities: actors like Tim Allen and Whoopi Goldberg or musicians like Jason Aldean and Kid Rock. He often features them in dramatic but entirely fictional feuds over culture war topics. An April post claiming Beyoncé was criticized for “playing dress up” by releasing country music received more than 50,000 shares and 28,000 comments.

“If it’s someone from the right, I reward them. If it’s someone from the left, I punish them,” Mr. Blair said in a telephone interview. “This is my method.”

This was not the only pivot Mr Blair had to make. After Facebook began downgrading posts linking to low-quality websites, Mr Blair began posting only images and memes. Now, when a post appears to be successful, it will add the link as a pinned comment.

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

These changes have spread across the industry, with similar falsehoods appearing on Facebook pages with even larger audiences, like “Donald Trump Is My President,” which has more than 1.8 million followers. Some posts are shared directly with groups filled with conservatives, like the fan pages of Tucker Carlson and Jesse Watters, two right-wing anchors.

Many accounts describe themselves as media. NewsGuard, a company that tracks misinformation online, 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 of headlines coming out every day,” said Coalter Palmer, an analyst at NewsGuard who conducted the study. “It’s a lot of culture war stuff.”

Today, Mr Blair faces tougher competition from pages that use AI tools to write fake stories about the celebrities and culture war issues he has highlighted. NewsGuard has identified nearly 1,000 websites that use AI tools to write unreliable news articles, up from 138 a year ago.

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

“My material, my characters, my keywords, my hot buttons – they take everything,” Mr Blair said of the recent plagiarism. “They integrated it into an AI program, and it made headlines. There is nothing original in all this.

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

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

“I am a liberal troll, social justice warrior, serving up satirical nonsense with a mission,” Mr Blair said. “He sells fake news to American conservatives in Pakistan for profit.”

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

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

“He’s probably the most efficient user of my stuff,” Mr. Blair said. “He’s trying to get away from AI, but he never will.”