Tip of the iceberg: Tracing the network of spammy pages in Facebook takedowndesktop
Many of the pages in these networks have shared false or misleading articles
At a glance:
- Many of the pages that Facebook took down in the Philippines shared articles from highly-partisan websites that also spread false news and had been fact-checked by Rappler.
- Almost all of these websites are newly-created and lack details to establish authenticity and accountability.
- These Facebook pages seem to be part of a "network" that extends reach and amplifies messages.
MANILA, Philippines – On Monday, October 22, Facebook announced that it had taken down 95 pages and 39 accounts in the Philippines that violated its spam or authenticity guidelines.
Facebook initially made public the names of 12 pages and accounts, many of which had shared political content. The social media platform pointed out that all were sharing links from Facebook to the same advertising click farms.
The list that Facebook disclosed, however, is just the tip of the iceberg.
Based on data Rappler has collected through its social media monitoring tool called Sharktank, these pages are part of a "network" that shares the same partisan content from the same websites.
While some of the Facebook pages in the network have been taken down, there are others that remain online. Facebook has not disclosed how it decided what to take down and what to retain. It has also not categorically linked the takedowns to inputs from 3rd party fact check partners.
A map of the websites and the Facebook pages that share them shows the interconnections that extend reach and magnify messages.
The blue dots represent the websites, while the red and pink dots represent the pages already taken down or are now inaccessible. The red dots are also the pages that match those identified and named by Facebook. The green dots represent pages still available and not included in the Facebook list.
A scrutiny of the false content shared by these Facebook pages shows that they targeted mostly members of the opposition, and rode on major news events during specific time periods: the ouster of then chief justice Maria Lourdes Sereno in May 2018 and the debates in mid-2018 on supposed 2016 election irregularities.
Of the 12 pages identified by Facebook, Duterte Media and Duterte Phenomenon shared the most times false articles which Rappler had fact-checked. (LIST: False news shared by PH-based pages taken down by Facebook)
Duterte Media and Duterte Phenomenon, along with 23 other pages – almost all riding on the name of President Rodrigo Duterte – have been observed in different time periods to have shared content from dubious websites with false content. Many of these had also been fact-checked by Rappler.
Multiple combinations of these 25 Duterte-named pages shared the false content of websites kantonewsph.xyz (from May 12 to June 17, 2018), du3onews.info (June 21 to June 25), aboutdu30.info (June 26 to July 2), kantonewsph.info (July 5 to 19), onelinebalita.xyz (July 21 to September 10), and balitaonline.xyz (September 11 to 30). In general, the content shared were pro-administration and anti-opposition.
The site kantonewsph.xyz, for instance, figured in many Rappler fact checks, like those involving detained Senator Leila de Lima, ousted chief justice Sereno, Senate President Vicente Sotto III and his "endorsement" of presidential daughter Sara Duterte, and the ongoing 2016 vice presidential election recount.
The website onelinebalita.xyz also posted hoaxes or misleading articles, such as the Philippines supposedly ranking among the world's fastest-growing economies, opposition senators allegedly being part of poll fraud in 2016, the supposed "entry" of a third telecommunications firm when the government's bidding process was still in progress, and actress Kris Aquino allegedly wearing a necklace from a collection seized from the Marcos family. It also posted wrong information about Naga City's crime volume.
Meanwhile, kantonewsph.info published a false article about the government's “anti-tambay” operations.
Among the 6 websites, only 3 remain up: aboutdu30.info, onlinebalita.xyz, and balitaonline.xyz. However, their last posts were one to 3 months ago.
Twelve of the Facebook pages in this network are still up as of this posting and continue to share content from dubious websites. The rest are now down or inaccessible (see network graph below).
Starting October, different combinations of these Facebook pages began sharing 3 new websites, all equally dubious: todaystopnews.xyz, latestnewz.xyz, and casterph.xyz.
This group of websites is very new, as determined by domain information obtained via Whois lookup searches. Whois is a service that provides information about a registered domain or website, like its creation date and the domain name service provider. (RELATED: Facebook blocks websites believed to be peddling fake news)
The 3 websites also noticeably carry the “.xyz” top-level domain (TLD). Because it is a new TLD, it is cheaper than the usual .com, .net or .org endings of websites, and therefore easier to buy from domain name hosting services. Armed with this, websites become easier to set up.
A combined 26 Facebook pages, in different subgroups (see network graph below), shared content from the 3 websites alone over certain periods in October. Most of these pages used Duterte's name.
The 1st website (todaystopnews.xyz) started to be shared on October 8, on average 6 times a day; the 2nd (casterph.xyz) starting October 15, on average 6 times a day for 8 straight days; and the 3rd (latestnewz.xyz) starting October 18, the same day it was registered, once every day.
The first-ever articles posted on these websites were also published on the same days, except for casterph.xyz, which posted for the first time on October 10. All domains were created through the domain registry site namesilo.com.
The 3 websites are full of online ads, and have very similar layouts. The articles in all these sites have little to no text, and contain only videos that are very supportive of President Duterte and his administration.
Except for casterph.xyz which recently became inaccessible, the other two sites are still up as of this writing.
The websites also don't have an “About Us” page, where staff members or office address should be seen. Their posts also do not have a byline or author. Only todaystopnews.xyz contains a disclaimer for each of its posts, but even then, it's only a generic one that says it does not own the copyright of the audio or video embedded on the site.
Many of the embedded videos are from the YouTube account, Tokhang TV. As seen in previous Rappler fact checks, this YouTube account usually reuploads videos of pro-Duterte vloggers (video bloggers) and makes use of exaggerated video titles that appear to provoke partisan reactions.
Another Facebook page, Duterte-News-Update-339448673234955, shared casterph.xyz 19 times but seems to have been taken down a week ago.
Two more pages – bonggoofficiaI and imeemarcosofficial – shared latestnewz.xyz daily in the past week and are still active.
The Facebook pages Duterte Media, Duterte Phenomenon, and 13 others that shared content from casterph.xyz also each shared the Facebook page IMEEParaSaMasa 31 times. This page does not link to external websites but instead contains graphics with quotes (insta-quotes) and other photos.
The pages that shared these sites present only a small portion of websites and blogs fact checked or tracked by Rappler to have been shared by propaganda groups and pages on Facebook since 2016.
To date, Rappler’s Sharktank – a database that monitors posts and comments on over 2,000 public pages and 900 public groups managed by partisan groups and local news organizations on Facebook – has monitored over 4,000 unique sites and blogs.
While these sites include websites of key news organizations in the country, a vast majority of them have unknown authors or owners.
A significant number have been fact-checked by local Facebook partner third-party fact-check groups, or they exhibit similar features as the spammy sites promoted by the pages that Facebook took down. – Michael Bueza, Wayne Manuel, and Gemma B. Mendoza/Rappler.com