Facebook Failed Miserably in its Attempt to Stop the Hunter Biden Story

The story has racked up over 54 million views on Facebook.
October 23, 2020, 12:58pm
Facebook Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg testifies before the House Financial Services Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Oct. 23, 2019, to discuss his plans for the new cryptocurrency Libra (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)​
Facebook Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg testifies before the House Financial Services Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Oct. 23, 2019, to discuss his plans for the new cryptocurrency Libra (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
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Unraveling viral disinformation and explaining where it came from, the harm it's causing, and what we should do about it.

For four years, Facebook has promised to curb the spread of disinformation, but new data shows that it has failed miserably

Its most recent challenge was trying to prevent an unconfirmed report about the contents of a laptop supposedly owned by Hunter Biden from going viral on its platform. 

While Twitter was slammed for its response — which saw it block URLs to the New York Post’s laptop story completely — Facebook escaped criticism, after it took what appeared to be a more considered route of reducing its distribution on users’ News Feeds before it was fact-checked.

But it turns out that Facebook’s efforts didn’t do much to stop the story from spreading.

Since the New York Post story was published on Oct. 14, it has received 2,164,601 interactions, with 54,115,025 estimated views on Facebook, according to new research conducted by digital rights group Avaaz and shared with VICE News.

But an even more startling and worrying statistic from Avaaz’s research highlights how Facebook has failed to get a handle on the spread of disinformation on its platform since the 2016 election.

Avaaz found that among those sharing the New York Post story was a network of more than 200 pages and groups — with a combined following of 13 million users — which had previously been identified by Avaaz as serial spreaders of disinformation.

When the researchers looked at the reach of these groups today compared to 2016, they found that despite Facebook’s claims about cracking down on spreaders of disinformation, the groups had received 4.25 times more interactions in the 12 months leading up to the election than they did four years ago.

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“This data really confirms the things that we know about the way in which algorithms amplify the worst, most titillating, often racist and sexist and fraudulent kinds of disinformation,” Safiya Noble, author of the book “Algorithms of Oppression,” said during an online press conference on Thursday.

“We know that this is indeed the model for social media companies and for Facebook specifically, who profits incredibly off of a business model of engagement, and that engagement is predicated upon any kind of so-called content, moving through its platform,” Noble added.

Avaaz’s research revealed other concerning data about disinformation on Facebook ahead of the election. The group looked at 10 false claims about voter fraud — which had been fact-checked by Facebook’s fact-checking partners — and found that in just four swing states (Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Florida), they had been viewed 24.7 million times. 

Fadi Quran, Avaaz’s campaign director, said that the 10 claims its researchers focused on were just a fraction of the hundreds of false claims circulating on Facebook, adding that just 37% of the false claims had been labeled as misinformation by Facebook — despite being fact-checked.

“In those states that are decided by a small margin of swing votes, over 20 million estimated views is terrifying,” Quran said.

In a poll Avaaz conducted with SurveyUSA, voters in Pennsylvania were asked if they had seen the claim that more mail-in voting will lead to voter fraud. The survey found that 86% of registered voters had seen the claim, with 72% of those saying they had seen the disinformation on Facebook.

And, the survey found that 35% of registered voters in Pennsylvania believed the claim was true.

Facebook did not comment on Avaaz’s research.

Here’s what else is happening in the world of election disinformation.

Debate disinformation

President Donald Trump opened the debate with a lie, misstating the predicted number of deaths from COVID-19, and continued to pretty much lie his way through to the end of what is apparently being viewed as something resembling a real debate.

But people’s perception of reality has been so skewed by four years of unrelenting falsehoods and disinformation that Trump lying calmly rather than lying loudly is seen as something of a step forward.

Some critics pointed out that Joe Biden also lied, which is like comparing a violently erupting volcano spewing molten lava 24 hours a day to a candle flickering in the wind. Or, as CNN’s fact-checker Daniel Dale put it: "With Trump, you're like 'I Love Lucy' at the chocolate factory. You just don't know which one to pick up."

Facebook’s Supreme Court is now in session

Finally, 13 months after being announced, Facebook’s Oversight Board is open for business. It means that people who have had content taken down by Facebook can appeal the decision to this entirely independent body and Facebook has to honor the decision the board makes — though it should be noted that there is no legal obligation on Facebook to do this, just a public promise to do so.

Despite the timing of the launch, 12 days out from the election, the board is highly unlikely to deal with any election-related content. This has been the focus of much criticism — especially from the alternative Real Facebook Oversight Board — but on a call with reporters on Thursday, the board members said that their task was not to act as a mechanism for rapid response to breaking issues, but to focus on long term change at Facebook.

“Facebook was always criticized for moving fast and breaking things,” Helle Thorning-Schmidt, the former prime minister of Denmark and board co-chairwoman, said during the call. “I think we are looking at the opposite — we want to look at quality, and look at how we are here for the long term, rather than to move quickly and be under a lot of time pressure.”

Patreon banned QAnon grifters

Patreon became the latest tech company to ban QAnon from its platform, announcing the move Thursday, just days after a report came out highlighting how QAnon influencers/grifters were making thousands of dollars a month from subscribers.

Naturally, those impacted were not very happy: