You don’t need much to set up a Facebook page, and even less to set up a Facebook group. All it takes is an email address, a seemingly legitimate name, and you’re in business. This has become a glaring problem for Facebook recently as it struggles to get out from under the Cambridge Analytica scandal, whereby millions of voters had their Facebook data stolen by the right-wing data firm, and ongoing revelations that poor site design has meant almost every user has had their public profiles scraped. This has a whole host of problems, but one highly visible one is that scammers set up pages that pretend to advocate for a political cause, pocket the money, and Facebook may not even realize it’s happening.
This is what happened with one of the most popular Black Lives Matter pages on Facebook. CNN dug into just who runs the page, and more importantly who collects the money the page raises from its fundraisers that supposedly go to BLM causes and the merchandise from its page. It found that it wasn’t going to any charity; in fact, the page was run by a white man in Australia, Ian McKay. McKay apparently swooped in, scooped up several domains and social media pages related to Black Lives Matter, such as BlackPowerFist.com, and began selling merchandise and pushing fundraisers almost immediately. Worse, according to CNN, not even members of BLM could get Facebook to so much as acknowledge there might be a problem:
Only after almost a week of emails and calls between CNN and Facebook about this story did Facebook suspend the page, and then only because it had suspended a user account that administrated the page…Not for the first time, Facebook took action against a major bad actor on its site not on its own but because journalists made inquiries.
Indeed, Facebook was told of concerns about the page some time ago. Patrisse Cullors, a co-founder of the Black Lives Matter movement, told CNN that Black Lives Matter had, suspecting the page was a scam, contacted Facebook about removing it a few months ago.
As CNN noted, this is hardly the first time politics has been used to run scams on Facebook. Last year, ProPublica reported on ads that used Trump’s low approval rating to try and lure in anti-Trump voters into downloading malware. In fact, Facebook’s fake news problems have less to do with Russian interference or political malice than simple, mercenary greed, as Buzzfeed explained in a deep look at the fake news industry:
The young Macedonians who run these sites say they don’t care about Donald Trump. They are responding to straightforward economic incentives: As Facebook regularly reveals in earnings reports, a US Facebook user is worth about four times a user outside the US. The fraction-of-a-penny-per-click of US display advertising — a declining market for American publishers — goes a long way in Veles. Several teens and young men who run these sites told BuzzFeed News that they learned the best way to generate traffic is to get their politics stories to spread on Facebook — and the best way to generate shares on Facebook is to publish sensationalist and often false content that caters to Trump supporters.
Facebook spreads the articles, the articles get the clicks, the Google ads pay per click, and the cash spends. Who cares if the articles are real?
All of this is possible because Facebook does almost no vetting. The Guardian has an article from six months ago about a page called “Blacktivist” that eeriely reflects CNN’s reporting right down to local activists being highly suspicious and reporting the page, the only difference being it was allegedly run by Russia’s propaganda arm. Why is the same story repeating, less than a year later?
Keep in mind, it’s simple to find the overall physical location of an IP address. And it’s not hard to spot an attempt to veil your IP address, either. There’s a lot Facebook could do to stop this, but it isn’t. And considering Mark Zuckerberg is in front of Congress this week, the question of why may suddenly become much more pressing.