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How Facebook’s news feed can be fooled into spreading misinformation
Meet one of the Internet's most prolific distributors of hyper-partisan fare. From California, Cyrus Massoumi caters to both liberals and conservatives, serving up political grist through various Facebook pages. Science correspondent Miles O'Brien profiles a leading purveyor of junk news who has hit the jackpot exploiting the trend toward tribalism.
Now to our deep dive on the continuing problem of false or misleading news, or what you might call junk news.
Much of the attention recently has centered on Facebook. And, yesterday, the company's founder and CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, told "Wired" magazine that it may take up to three years to fully prevent all kinds of harmful content from affecting people's news feeds.
Tonight, Miles O'Brien's latest report profiles a man who's been a leading purveyor of junk news, and how he has been exploiting Facebook to reach an audience.
It's part of our weekly series on the Leading Edge of technology.
There has been a shooting at a high school in Parkland.
Right now, we have about 5,300 people and change on the Web site.
It was a busy day at the office when we met one of the Internet's most prolific distributors of hyperpartisan fare.
Actually, in a story like this, we do actually beat the mainstream media for these sorts of breaking new events.
It was the day of the high school shootings in Parkland, Florida, and as the horrific events unfolded, Cyrus Massoumi was spinning facts reported by others to fit the world view of his audience.
You can see that, like, he is wearing a "Make America Great Again" hat.
And he has lots of photos of guns, so, obviously, this is going to be a very controversial issue.
His site is called Truth Examiner. And it caters to liberals, with headlines like this designed to entice clicks on stories with little substance.
His writers are among the five most successful at luring those clicks on Facebook.
People want to read those lines to reaffirm their beliefs, right?
And that is not rocket science, is it?
It's not rocket science, but doing it faster and better than your competitors is an art.
Lately, Truth Examiner has added something else to the formula, a steady stream of conspiracy theories, ironically, accusing the Trump administration of peddling fake news.
Massoumi has thrived in this murky world for eight years, hedging his bets, serving up grist for liberals and conservatives through various Facebook pages.
They want like 250-word, like little hit them and go. It's like — basically like a coke addict. Every hour, he just needs to get that little dopamine rush. Like, a fan on the conservative side or the liberal side needs to take out their phone, look at it, oh, Trump sucks. Trump sucks, so bad. All right, all right, I'm done, I'm done, and then, right?
Like, that's it. That's it.
People don't care about the facts.
Yes, of course. People don't care about facts. Take it to the bank.
He estimates he has spent over a million dollars in ads, reaching over 100 million people, and has made several million dollars by selling that audience to advertisers on his own site and on Facebook.
Do you create fake news?
No. No, I don't.
Tell me what it is then.
Always inflammatory, like excluding facts from the other side, but never fake. My team, they don't cover news angles which are favorable to opposition, in the same way that CNN would never cover a favorable angle to Trump or MSNBC.
He lives in the home where he grew up, on a nine-acre vineyard in Napa, California.
We grow a brand of cabernet which is, I'm told, very nice although I'm not a wine person.
He is a self-described cultural libertarian, free thinker and lover of politics. For him, it all started in high school. He was selling anti-Obama T-shirts and decided Facebook was a good way to reach more customers.
It worked. He learned how to build an audience on Facebook, dropped the T-shirts and created Mr. Conservative, his first hyperpartisan site.
So, I'm a marketer with a love of politics. And, you know, I contend that marketers will be the king of the future of media. I think that the danger is not the Russians or the Macedonians, but that the actual danger is when you have a marketer who doesn't love politics.
Producer Cameron Hickey found Cyrus Massoumi during our 16 month investigation of hyperpartisan misinformation on Facebook.
Cameron's key reporting tool? Software that he wrote that analyzes social media, looking for the sources of what we call junk news.
It's clear that a lot of the publishers are domestic, and I think we have given a lot of attention to Russian disinformation or Macedonian teenage profiteers, but both of those groups, I think, learned it from these guys.
They have learned it from Americans, who have been long profiting on partisan information or other kinds of junk.
Social networking allows us all to bypass the traditional arbiters of truth that evolved in the 20th century.
Historically, our information landscape has been tribal. We turn to the people that are like us, the people that we know, the people around us to make sense of what is real and what we believe in.
Computer scientist Danah Boyd is president and founder of Data & Society.
And what we're seeing now with the network media landscape is the ability to move back towards extreme tribalism. And there are whole variety of actors, state actors, non-state actors, who are happy to move along a path where people are actually not putting their faith in institutions or information intermediaries, and are instead turning to their tribes, to their communities.
Cyrus Massoumi's first big jackpot exploiting this trend toward tribalism was linked to yet another mass shooting at a school, this one in Sandy Hook, Connecticut, in 2012.
In the midst of that horror, he bought a Facebook ad that asked a question, do you stand against the assault weapons ban? If so, click like. Those who did became subscribers to his page, insuring his content would rise to the top of their news feeds. He had bought thousands of fans at a very low price.
I felt subsequently that I built my first business, sort of if you want to call it, on the graves of young children who were killed.
Well, how do you feel about that?
I don't know. How do people feel about things that they do badly? I feel bad about it, but, I mean, we do what we do to pay the mortgage, right?
The strategy Massoumi helped pioneer spread like virtual wildfire. By 2016, marketers, political operatives and state actors were all using the same playbook of hyped headlines, political propaganda and outright falsehoods.
They were all in an environment together, a melting pot, if you will, and with a whole set of really powerful skills, when they saw a reality TV star start to run for president.
And that's pretty funny. That's pretty interesting. And so it was fun to create spectacle.
The stage was set for the 2016 presidential election and an unprecedented misinformation campaign waged on several fronts.
Back in Napa, Cyrus Massoumi was doing well, running a conservative page called Truth Monitor, along with the liberal Truth Examiner. Massoumi says anger is what generates likes, and conservative stories were more lucrative.
Conservatives are angrier people.
Tell me about that.
You ever seen a Trump rally on TV?
Yes? It's gold.
But, since the election, the conservative side of Massoumi's business has dried up. His site that used to offer that content has moved into feel-good stories.
He says competition among conservative hyperpartisan sites created a junk news arms race, making the content too extreme to be ranked favorably by the Facebook news feed algorithm.
On the conservative side, I think that we were at one point publishing low-quality clickbait. That's what the conservative devolved into.
Is it unpatriotic to do it?
To publish low-quality clickbait? I think that people like what they like. And my goal at one point was to deliver to them what they like.
And, unfortunately, the reality of that is, is that people are prone to go for the lowest common denominator.
But, for Cyrus Massoumi, the target really doesn't matter, so long as he hits the mark. Stirring up anger, no matter on which side, is very good for business.
Ahead as we continue our series, you will meet two of the fans bought by Cyrus Massoumi, a deep blue liberal from Brooklyn and a Christian conservative from Indianapolis.
For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Miles O'Brien in Napa, California.
Miles' series on Facebook and junk news continues next week. You can watch part one and find more reporting on our Web site, PBS.org/NewsHour.
Watch the Full Episode
Miles O’Brien is a veteran, independent journalist who focuses on science, technology and aerospace.
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