THE TECH GIANTS ARE PAYING MILLIONS OF DOLLARS TO THE OPERATORS OF CLICKBAIT PAGES, BANKROLLING THE DETERIORATION OF INFORMATION ECOSYSTEMS AROUND THE WORLD.

Last October, “Facebook Papers“, a collection of internal documents provided to U.S Congress and a consortium of news organizations by whistleblower Frances Haugen, have reaffirmed what civil society groups have been saying for years: Facebook’s algorithmic amplification of inflammatory content, combined with its failure to prioritize content moderation outside the US and Europe, has fueled the spread of hate speech and misinformation, dangerously destabilizing countries around the world.

But there’s a crucial piece missing from the story. Facebook isn’t just amplifying misinformation. The company is also funding it according to an MIT Technology Review investigation– based on expert interviews, data analyses, and documents that were not included in the Facebook Papers, has found that Facebook and Google are paying millions of ad dollars to bankroll clickbait actors, fueling the deterioration of information ecosystems around the world.

THE ANATOMY OF A CLICKBAIT FARM

Facebook launched its Instant Articles program in 2015 with a handful of US and European publishers. The company billed the program as a way to improve article load times and create a slicker user experience.

That was the public sell. But the move also conveniently captured advertising dollars from Google. Before Instant Articles, articles posted on Facebook would redirect to a browser, where they’d open up on the publisher’s own website. The ad provider, usually Google, would then cash in on any ad views or clicks. With the new scheme, articles would open up directly within the Facebook app, and Facebook would own the ad space. If a participating publisher had also opted in to monetizing with Facebook’s advertising network, called Audience Network, Facebook could insert ads into the publisher’s stories and take a 30% cut of the revenue.

Instant Articles quickly fell out of favor with its original cohort of big mainstream publishers. For them, the payouts weren’t high enough compared with other available forms of monetization. But that was not true for publishers in the Global South, which Facebook began accepting into the program in 2016. In 2018, the company reported paying out $1.5 billion to publishers and app developers (who can also participate in Audience Network). By 2019, that figure had reached multiple billions.

Early on, Facebook performed little quality control on the types of publishers joining the program. The platform’s design also didn’t sufficiently penalize users for posting identical content across Facebook pages—in fact, it rewarded the behavior. Posting the same article on multiple pages could as much as double the number of users who clicked on it and generated ad revenue.

Clickbait farms around the world seized on this flaw as a strategy—one they still use today.

An internal company document, first reported by MIT Technology Review in October, shows that Facebook was aware of the problem as early as 2019. The author, former Facebook data scientist Jeff Allen, found that these exact tactics had allowed clickbait farms in Macedonia and Kosovo to reach nearly half a million Americans a year before the 2020 election. The farms had also made their way into Instant Articles and Ad Breaks, a similar monetization program for inserting ads into Facebook videos. At one point, as many as 60% of the domains enrolled in Instant Articles were using the spammy writing tactics employed by clickbait farms, the report said. Allen, bound by a nondisclosure agreement with Facebook, did not comment on the report.

Despite pressure from both internal and external researchers, Facebook struggled to stem the abuse. Meanwhile, the company was rolling out more monetization programs to open up new streams of revenue. Besides Ad Breaks for videos, there was IGTV Monetization for Instagram and In-Stream Ads for Live videos. “That reckless push for user growth we saw—now we are seeing a reckless push for publisher growth,” says Victoire Rio, a digital rights researcher fighting platform-induced harms in Myanmar and other countries in the Global South.

MIT Technology Review has found that the problem is now happening on a global scale. Thousands of clickbait operations have sprung up, primarily in countries where Facebook’s payouts provide a larger and steadier source of income than other forms of available work. Some are teams of people while others are individuals, abetted by cheap automated tools that help them create and distribute articles at mass scale. They’re no longer limited to publishing articles, either. They push out Live videos and run Instagram accounts, which they monetize directly or use to drive more traffic to their sites.

Google is also culpable. Its AdSense program fueled the Macedonia- and Kosovo-based farms that targeted American audiences in the lead-up to the 2016 presidential election. And it’s AdSense that is incentivizing new clickbait actors on YouTube to post outrageous content and viral misinformation.

Many clickbait farms today now monetize with both Instant Articles and AdSense, receiving payouts from both companies. And because Facebook’s and YouTube’s algorithms boost whatever is engaging to users, they’ve created an information ecosystem where content that goes viral on one platform will often be recycled on the other to maximize distribution and revenue.

Find the full MIT Technology Review investigative article here