Fake news dominated the post-election cycle as people began taking apart how it works. But there’s more fuel added to the fire, now that the FBI is investigating Russian spambots that might have buried Facebook in links from InfoWars and Breitbart. And that might doom both sites, no matter how innocent or guilty they are.
McClatchy has a good overview of the investigation, which is fairly simple. Russian spambots were used to fill social media sites with links to several sites, InfoWars and Breitbart among them. Also included were Russian propaganda arms RT News and Sputnik News, which no mainstream news outlet wants to be connected to in the first place. The main question now is whether either site knowingly collaborated with Russian operatives or were simply useful for Russian ends. Neither looks good, of course, but the former may involve jail time while the latter is just an embarrassment.
In the end, though, it doesn’t matter. InfoWars and Breitbart are both staring down the greatest nightmare of any webmaster: Having to go back and explain to all the people who bought ads that their statistics are wrong. Social reach is important to advertisers as the wider a site’s social net is, the more viewers it has. Facebook, in particular, is important, and when sites present inaccurate data to advertisers, the response is often financially painful. Recently, Facebook revealed several problems with its ad metrics that left dozens of sites scrambling to adjust their contracts.
Both sites are already facing severe problems with advertising. Over a thousand companies have pulled advertising from Breitbart, and Google and Facebook are working on policies the sites may find themselves falling afoul of. So whether the sites turn out to be knowing collaborators or just accidentally useful to anti-American interests, it’s likely to cost them in the end.