Meta Made Millions From Ads That Spread Disinformation

When Meta scores Zuckerberg was called to testify before Congress in 2018, Senator Orin Hatch asked him how he made money on Facebook. Since then, Zuckerberg’s response has become a sort of meme: “Senator, we’re posting ads.”

Between July 2018 and April 2022, Meta earned at least $ 30.3 million in advertising revenue from networks that it removed from its own platforms for engaging in non-genuine coordinated behavior (IPC), according to data collected. for WIRED. Margarita Franklin, Meta’s head of security communications, confirmed to WIRED that the company will not return the ad money if a network is turned off.

A report from The Wall Street Journal estimates that by the end of 2021, Meta absorbed 17 percent of the money from the global advertising market and earned $ 114 billion from advertising. At least some of the money came from ads bought by networks that violate Meta’s policies and which the company itself has marked and removed.

Photographs: Meta

“The global advertising industry is estimated to be between $ 400 billion and $ 700 billion,” said Claire Atkin, co-founder of the independent organization Check My Ads Institute. “This is a big brush, but no one knows how big the industry is. No one knows what’s going on inside.”

But Atkin says part of what makes information, including ads, feel legitimate on social media is the context in which it appears. “Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp, this whole network within our Internet experience, is where we connect with our closest friends and family. This 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 connection location.”

For almost four years, Meta has published periodic reports identifying CIB networks of fake accounts and pages that aim to mislead users and, in many cases, drive propaganda or misinformation in a way designed to look organic and change public 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-world accounts as part of their information operations. Nathaniel Gleicher, Meta’s chief security officer, announced the changes in a blog post, noting that “threat actors deliberately blur the lines between genuine and non-genuine activities, making enforcement more difficult. our whole industry. “

This change, however, shows how specific the company’s criteria are for the CIB, which means that Meta may not have documented some networks that used other tactics. Sometimes information transactions can use real accounts or run on behalf of a political action committee or LLC, making it more difficult to classify their behavior as “non-authentic.”

“One tactic that has been used most often, at least since 2016, has not been robots, but real people who go out and publish things,” says Sarah Kay Wiley, a researcher at Columbia University’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism. . “Facebook’s CIB reports are understandable, but it’s very difficult to detect.”


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Russia had the most ads on the networks that Meta identified as CIB and later removed. The United States, Ukraine, and Mexico were the most frequent targets, although almost all campaigns targeting Mexico were linked to national actors. (Meta’s public earnings documents do not break down how much the company earns by country, only by region).

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

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