How Facebook and Google Fund Global Misinformation

In 2015, Facebook launched Instant Articles, which is sort of its version of Google’s Accelerated Mobile Pages format in the sense of it being a phone-first fast-loading proprietary webpage format. It allowed Facebook to capture the ads displayed on those pages.

Karen Hao, MIT Technology Review:

Instant Articles quickly fell out of favor with its original cohort of big mainstream publishers. For them, the payouts weren’t high enough compared with other available forms of monetization. But that was not true for publishers in the Global South, which Facebook began accepting into the program in 2016. In 2018, the company reported paying out $1.5 billion to publishers and app developers (who can also participate in Audience Network). In 2019, that figure had reached multiple billions.

Early on, Facebook performed little quality control on the types of publishers joining the program. The platform’s design also didn’t sufficiently penalize users for posting identical content across Facebook pages — in fact, it rewarded the behavior. Posting the same article on multiple pages could as much as double the number of users who clicked on it and generated ad revenue.

Clickbait farms around the world seized on this flaw as a strategy — one they still use today.

You may quibble with Hao’s use of the term “clickbait”; if so, feel free to replace it with something like “low-quality publishers” in your head. The results are the same.

Hao’s reporting is strong and I recommend this article, but it can also be seen, in part, as an updated and consolidated version of stories published since Instant Articles debuted:

  • In 2016, Kyle Chayka reported for the Verge that the generic and consistent layouts of pages powered by AMP and Instant Articles made it hard to distinguish between legitimate news sources and sketchy blogs.

  • In 2017, Sarah Perez wrote for TechCrunch about how Facebook would begin ranking faster-loading pages higher in users’ News Feeds, a decision that incidentally benefitted Instant Articles. Facebook says that Instant Articles are “ranked in News Feed by the same criteria” used for any other page.

  • Notably, Jane Lytvynenko reported for Buzzfeed News in 2018 that Instant Articles were gaining adoption among disreputable publishers. They also used Facebook’s advertising technology.

By advantaging their own formats — however incidentally they may claim — while eschewing moderation, Google and Facebook must be held at least partially responsible in my eyes for the misinformation they helped fund and spread. I do not mean that in a legal sense; I am not a lawyer. But their moral culpability for this should be attached to them for as long as we think about them.