Fake News Still Has a Home on Facebook

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Stuart Thompson collected and analyzed data on thousands of Facebook posts for this article.

On the morning of Jan. 6, 2021, Christopher Blair’s fake news empire was humming along.

Mr. Blair had been earning as much as $15,000 in some months by posting false stories to Facebook about Democrats and the election, reaching millions of people each month.

But after a mob of Trump supporters attacked the U.S. Capitol, his growing enterprise came to an abrupt halt. Facebook seemed to recognize its own role in fomenting an insurrection and tweaked its algorithm to limit the spread of political content, fake and otherwise. Mr. Blair watched his engagement flatline.

“It just kind of crashed — anything political crashed for about six months,” he said.

Today, though, Mr. Blair has fully recovered, and then some. His false posts — which he insists are satire intended to mock conservatives — are receiving more interactions on Facebook than ever, surging to 7.2 million interactions already this year compared with one million in all of 2021.

Mr. Blair has survived Facebook’s tweaks by pivoting away from politicians and toward culture war topics like Hollywood elites and social justice issues.

When Robert De Niro appeared outside a Manhattan courthouse last month to criticize former President Donald J. Trump, for example, Mr. Blair dashed off a false post claiming that a conservative actor had called him “horrible” and “ungodly.” It received nearly 20,000 shares.

Many writers like him — who publish falsehoods to fringe websites and social media accounts in a bid for clicks that can translate into profitable ad revenue — have also leaned into culture war topics. So far this year, only a quarter of the Facebook content that was rated “false” by PolitiFact, a fact-checking website, focused on politics or politicians, with nearly half focusing on issues like transgender athletes, liberal celebrities or health alternatives.

The success of those posts underscores an increasing reality on Facebook and similar platforms: Fake news is still finding an audience online.

The pivot has been so successful that Mr. Blair has seen an array of competitors spring up, many also calling their posts “satire.” They have copied his content and used artificial intelligence tools to supercharge their work.

“After what happened on Jan. 6, there was some progress, and then almost immediately that progress was rolled back,” said Paul Barrett, deputy director of the NYU Stern Center for Business and Human Rights, who studies online disinformation. “I think we’re actually more vulnerable to this today than we were in spring of 2021.”

A spokeswoman for Meta, which owns Facebook, responded by highlighting the company’s misinformation policy and its efforts to combat falsehoods by limiting the spread of certain low-quality content.

Mr. Blair, a 52-year-old former construction foreman, is an avowed liberal.

He doesn’t see his work as fake news. He has long defended himself, including in profiles in The Washington Post and The Boston Globe, as a comedian who trolls conservative Facebook users into believing news that they should clearly question. He compares his work to that of Sacha Baron Cohen, the British comic who frequently dupes conservative Americans in an attempt to ridicule them. Mr. Blair uses a small “satire” label on each image he posts to Facebook.

But his headlines are often indistinguishable from many of the falsehoods that are posted to the social network.

Facebook allows satirical pages, whether or not they use a “satire” label. But the term has also become a popular defense for fake news operators, who typically disclose they are satire only in an obscure section of their Facebook pages, or sometimes omit it entirely.

“It’s a cat-and-mouse game,” said David Lazer, a professor at Northeastern University who has studied disinformation. “Wherever there’s a loophole in enforcement, it’s going to be a place that activity will go.”

Facebook’s attempts to limit the spread of political content left Mr. Blair and his contributors searching for a new approach.

“We used to kill Hillary Clinton every Saturday in the most ridiculous ways,” said Joe LaForm, a 48-year-old truck driver who identifies as a liberal and has contributed to Mr. Blair’s Facebook page. “You know, she’d get run over by a monster truck at a monster truck rally.”

“We stopped doing that,” he added, because of Facebook’s attempts to limit the spread of political content.

Mr. Blair now posts dozens of false stories to the social network each week on his main account, which has more than 320,000 followers and more than 225,000 likes. He populates his posts with a colorful cast of celebrities: actors like Tim Allen and Whoopi Goldberg or musicians like Jason Aldean and Kid Rock. He often stages them in dramatic but entirely fictitious feuds over culture war topics. A post from April, claiming that Beyoncé was criticized for “playing dress-up” by releasing country music, received more than 50,000 shares and 28,000 comments.

“If it’s somebody on the right, I reward them. If it’s somebody on the left, I punish them,” Mr. Blair said in a phone interview. “It’s my method.”

This was not the only pivot Mr. Blair had to make. After Facebook started down-ranking posts that linked to low-quality websites, Mr. Blair started posting only images and memes. Now, when a post seems to be a hit, he will add the link as the pinned comment.

“I know exactly what happened, in every situation, and why,” Mr. Blair said of the ups and downs of publishing on Facebook. “I’m constantly adjusting.”

Those pivots have rippled through the industry, with similar falsehoods appearing on Facebook pages with even larger audiences, like “Donald Trump Is My President,” which has more than 1.8 million followers. Some posts are shared directly to groups filled with conservatives, like fan pages for Tucker Carlson and Jesse Watters, two right-leaning anchors.

Many of the accounts have described themselves as news outlets. NewsGuard, a company that tracks online disinformation, identified 15 such accounts, with names like “Daily News” or “Breaking News USA,” that shared falsehoods about companies like Disney, Paramount, Nike and Tyson Foods.

“There are just tons and tons and tons of headlines being churned out every single day,” said Coalter Palmer, an analyst at NewsGuard who conducted the research. “It’s a lot of cultural war stuff.”

Today, Mr. Blair is facing stiffer competition from pages that use A.I. tools to write fake stories about the celebrities and culture war issues he has highlighted. NewsGuard has identified nearly 1,000 websites that use A.I. tools to write unreliable news articles, up from 138 one year ago.

That competition includes SpaceXMania, a competing network of Facebook pages with at least 890,000 followers.

“My material, my cast of characters, my keywords, my hot buttons — they take everything,” Mr. Blair said of the recent plagiarism. “They put it into an A.I. program, and it just spits out headlines. There’s nothing original about any of it.”

When Mr. Blair wrote a false story recently about Harrison Butker, a National Football League player who garnered national attention for his conservative views on women, SpaceXMania quickly followed suit with stories of its own about Mr. Butker — earning hundreds of thousands more comments than Mr. Blair.

The operator behind SpaceXMania is based in Pakistan and identifies himself by the name Shabayer, according to Facebook messages with Mr. Blair that he shared with The New York Times. He has cited Mr. Blair as a “role model” for his start-up, according to the messages.

“I’m a liberal troll social justice warrior serving satirical nonsense with a mission,” Mr. Blair said. “He’s selling fake news to American conservatives from Pakistan for profit.”

A representative for SpaceXMania initially responded to an email, but stopped responding after a reporter sent questions.

Many of SpaceXMania’s articles were written entirely by artificial intelligence tools like ChatGPT, according to a Times analysis that used software to detect A.I.-written text.

“He’s probably the most effective at using my stuff,” Mr. Blair said. “He’s trying to get away from the A.I., but he never will.”

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