Facebook’s war against one of the internet’s worst conspiracy sites
It’s been a year since Facebook deleted the page for Natural News for violating the company’s rules about spam. This was a big deal for Natural News, a conspiracy site that had attracted about nearly 3 million followers on its Facebook page. Then in May, Facebook took further action by banning the Natural News domain, so that any link to the site would be blocked, along with some pages that frequently shared its content. Still, Natural News content has found ways to stick around.
As one of the internet’s oldest and most prolific sources of health misinformation and conspiracy theories, Natural News is a hub for climate change deniers and anti-vaxxers. While it poses as a news outlet, Natural News is actually a network of sites filled with bylined articles and flanked by ads for survivalist gear and dodgy health cures. The internet trust tool NewsGuard reports that Natural News “severely violates basic standards of credibility and transparency.” Various fact-checking organizations have repeatedly flagged Natural News content as false.
A new investigation from the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, a think tank that focuses on countering extremism, finds that there are hundreds of active and inactive domains that point to websites associated with Natural News. It’s through some of these domains that Natural News content can still end up being shared on Facebook, the researchers found. Facebook, meanwhile, has said that Natural News was banned “for spammy and abusive behavior, not the content they posted.” Most recently, Facebook said its pages had used abusive audience-building tactics, including posting frequently and trying to evade the company’s rate limits.
That hasn’t stopped Natural News from crying censorship and urging readers to appeal to Facebook and even the federal government over the bans. Meanwhile, researchers at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue say that it flagged several pages and groups that have frequently shared Natural News content to Facebook, but those pages and groups remain up.
The persistence of misinformation is not so surprising. The 2016 presidential campaign highlighted the extent to which fake news, extremist content, and conspiracy theories pervaded Facebook. Since then, the company has ramped up its fight against the most prominent sources of false information when it removes their pages and content. But it’s typical for Facebook to ban these sources for specific policy violations, not the spreading of misinformation.
Of course, that a network like Natural News can continue to spread misinformation on Facebook shouldn’t be surprising. Years after learning about the dangers and pervasiveness of fake news and conspiracy theories on its platform, the most powerful tool Facebook is using against these outlets appears to be booting their pages or banning specific domains for spam or other violations, not specifically for spreading misinformation. As he has expressed multiple times, Mark Zuckerberg does not want Facebook to appear as an arbiter of truth.
Infowars, a far-right outlet known for pushing conspiracy theories, is perhaps the most famous example of this. Citing its glorification of violence and violations of the company’s hate speech policies, Facebook removed several pages associated with Infowars and its founder Alex Jones in 2018. At the time, Facebook explicitly said that the removal was not about false news. Jones himself was banned from Facebook a year later under the platform’s “dangerous individuals and organizations” policy, though pages associated with him continued to pop up on Facebook after that.
Then there’s the Epoch Times, a right-leaning media outlet associated with the Falun Gong religious movement that has also published conspiracy theories. Facebook banned the Epoch Times for advertising on its platform last year, after it violated its political advertising transparency rules while pushing pro-Trump content and conspiracy theories. Facebook also shut down a network of fake accounts and pages linked to the Epoch Media Group for violating its coordinated inauthentic behavior rules (the Epoch Times denies the connection). Despite the bans, the Epoch Times has continued to spread misinformation on Facebook largely through its popular Facebook page.
Similarly, Facebook has banned a slew of Natural News-affiliated domains and pages. Over the past year, Natural News links had attracted more interactions on the platform than both the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, according to findings from researchers at the nonprofit activist network Avaaz. Facebook’s latest publicly announced action against the network — which included banning links from the main Natural News domain and those from two sister sites, as well as taking down several affiliated pages — seemed like an assertive move against a notorious spreader of fake news. But again, Natural News links were not banned for their content but rather other violations, and so the misinformation operation still managed to spread fake news on Facebook after those takedowns.
A brief history of Natural News
The mastermind behind the Natural News network is a man named Mike Adams, who calls himself “the Health Ranger” and claims to be an “activist-turned-scientist.” In the early 1990s, Adams founded an email-marketing business called Arial Software, through which he ran an anti-spam campaign. Things really took a turn when Adams also started a newswire service focused on preparing for Y2K, and he started pushing survivalist products. Eventually, Adams began building out the Natural News network, affording him more opportunity to develop his particular brand of viral paranoia as well as to build connections with other conspiracy theorists and members of the far right, including Alex Jones.
For a sense of the coverage on Natural News network, consider some of what it published last week. There’s a post urging people to “activate” their Second Amendment rights and “retake” downtown Seattle; an “exclusive” revealing that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is illegally targeting small businesses selling colloidal silver, a dangerous supplement marketed as a miracle cure; and a piece warning that “Communist China” has infiltrated the United States by using solar energy farms as a front for its military officers.
“They promote everything from the vaccine-autism link to natural cancer cures to the dangers of GMOs — all of that is in Natural News’s purview,” explains John Gregory, a senior analyst focusing on health for NewsGuard, adding that the site’s combination of far-right, extremist content with health information makes it “almost innovative.”
Technology platforms have been responding to Natural News and its unorthodox methods for years now. The site was blacklisted from Google in 2017 for using a prohibited “sneaky mobile redirect.” The ban prevented Natural News sites from showing up in certain search results (that de-indexing was soon reversed). A year later, the Health Ranger channel was apparently kicked off YouTube for violating the video platform’s community guidelines. Now the channel is still accessible but has not uploaded a new video in two years (it’s still easy to find other Natural News content on YouTube).
Despite pushback from the major tech platforms, Natural News content continued to find an audience. The links even appear to find their ways around the many bans, namely those imposed by Facebook. During the first three months of 2020, the Institute for Strategic Dialogue reports, there were 18,000 links to Natural News-affiliated sites in public Facebook pages and groups. Adams, meanwhile, continues to complain that technology companies are censoring Natural News content. Several of the network’s sites have even urged readers to join “the movement to end censorship by Big Tech” recently.
“Misinformation players trying to use the takedowns to mobilize their base is becoming a constant thing,” warns Avaaz senior campaigner Luca Nicotra. “They create the fake, they publish it, they know it will be removed, and so they mobilize a base [and] create copies of it to re-upload it.”
Natural News did not respond to Recode’s request for comment.
Why Natural News stories can keep showing up on Facebook
The mobilization effort appears to be working, and enlisting a growing number of websites to spread its content is central to the approach. The Institute for Strategic Dialogue reports that there are 21 current or historical corporate entities related to the Natural News network as well as 496 active and inactive domains. These domains often have themes — Extinction.news, Mind.control.news, and Veggie.news are just a few examples — and the sites themselves curate specific content from other Natural News sites. Many of these sites are not blocked on Facebook, which means that Natural News content can find its way onto the platform by way of these domains.
Facebook’s recent announcement that it had banned three Natural News-related domains came after it major promoted the infamous “Plandemic” conspiracy video, which pushed a wide range of falsehoods about the novel coronavirus. Facebook said it began taking down the video because its claim about mask-wearing causing Covid-19 could lead to imminent harm.
But, again, Facebook did not ban the Natural News domains for spreading false information. A Facebook spokesperson told Recode that the pages were removed for “spammy and abusive behavior, not the content they posted,” and added that the pages were using content farms in Macedonia and the Philippines. When describing these actions last week, Facebook’s head of cybersecurity policy Nathaniel Gleicher called Natural News “a conspiracy theory site that uses a range of deceptive techniques to boost their popularity” and said by banning Natural News, Facebook hoped to “stop financially motivated scammers and fraudsters.”
Mike Adams responded to Facebook’s latest actions by broadcasting his network’s multiple domain strategy. He even suggested that readers could get around the Facebook ban by using links from sites or domains that would mirror content from Natural News.
“In the future, we will also have alternate URLs and domain names that will allow you to share Brighteon videos,” Adams wrote in a post that appeared on multiple Natural News sites. “But those domains will of course be eventually banned by Facebook and the other tech giants, all of which are criminal operations that are complicit in communist China’s war against humanity.”
Adams followed through on his promise and encouraged readers to continue sharing the “Plandemic” video by posting links from the Natural News-affiliated domain Trump.news. He also told his followers to use another domain, banned.news, to “take action” against Facebook. In early June, PolitiFact published a report about a Natural News story that had been duplicated on Trump.news. The link to the duplicate was shared about 4,000 times on Facebook. Following the PolitiFact report, Facebook banned the Trump.news domain. Banned.news has also since been banned.
Facebook did not respond to Recode’s questions about why these new domains are getting banned, but it appears the company has resorted to a game of whack-a-mole with the new sites affiliated with Natural News, especially those Adams specifically instructs readers to use in order to evade the bans.
Indeed, Facebook has already started blocking content from additional domains associated with Natural News, but what exactly is banned — and why — remains unclear. When Recode tested 56 domains flagged by NewsGuard for novel coronavirus misinformation, about 35 were flagged. Recode also tested the 295 domains that Avaaz researchers linked to Natural News, and Facebook only blocked about 170 of those links. When Recode tested the 496 other domains identified by the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, about 80 were blocked by Facebook, though it’s worth noting that many of the sites could be inactive.
Facebook says it knows that spammy networks constantly change their approach, and that those networks can respond to domain bans by creating new sites with unique URLs. In monitoring attempts by these networks to return to Facebook and find new audiences, Facebook says it focuses on reducing a spam network’s ability to reach an audience, even if they can technically get their content onto Facebook by using new domains.
That’s a different process from Facebook’s approach to misinformation, which it typically avoids removing. If a page or group repeatedly shares content that’s flagged and labeled by the platform’s fact-checkers, Facebook can reduce its distribution and remove it from recommendations. Pages can also have their ability to monetize and advertise taken away. In the midst of the pandemic, Facebook has taken to removing false content that could lead to imminent physical harm, but not what BuzzFeed News calls “inevitable harm,” among the other misinformation that it allows to remain up. In 2018, Facebook told New York Times journalist Kevin Roose, “We just don’t think banning Pages for sharing conspiracy theories or false news is the right way to go.”
So while Facebook is taking action against Natural News, the company is not doing so under the auspices of fighting against misinformation. From a policy perspective, Facebook is fighting spam.
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