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Facebook hosts a lot of fake news, and big brands say it's on you to sort it out

Melody Hahm
Senior Writer
Fraudulent post on Facebook that has since been taken down

Facebook (FB) has become a place where people get their news. According to Chartbeat, Facebook is the No. 1 referral source for publishers, ahead of Google Search (GOOGL), Twitter (TWTR) and Google News.

There’s just one glaring problem: the site hosts fake news, too.

Maybe you’ve noticed some of these spammy articles peppering your Facebook feed. In case you haven’t, here’s an example:

A page called “Flex News” posted a piece called “Clay Matthews Suspended For 2016 Season?” Tagged as “ESPN Football” and written “by GoPro,” (GPRO) the article appears like any other legitimate piece of content...until you click it. The post lived on Facebook for a full week before the article was taken down Friday afternoon.

Flex News post on Facebook

A Facebook spokesperson told Yahoo Finance via email that it “usually only takes a couple of hours” to pull a fraudulent post down after it’s flagged either internally or by a Facebook user.

The onus, however, is on readers to flag any and all suspicious posts. “Anyone on Facebook can report an account for our team to investigate by clicking on the "…." button on the cover photos of the Page or Profile,” the spokesperson said.

Still, the existence of these articles on sites like Facebook risks damaging the trust brands have developed with their users.

How the brands feel about this

Not only did the post live solely on Facebook, but it also embroiled three prominent brands that have massive followings and credibility — ESPN (DIS), GoPro, and of course, the Packers.

Hopefully it goes without saying, but all of the information in the post is false or misleading. Clay Matthews was not suspended; no other reputable organization has reported as much. And as far as we know, there’s no evidence to suggest that quarterback Aaron Rodgers ever called his teammate a “complete disgrace.”

The Green Bay Packers did not respond to a request for comment.

You would imagine that the brands being referenced would want an article like this to be torn down right away. But after reaching out to the companies, there’s one major takeaway: it’s not a big deal to them.

“I wouldn’t say this is a big concern,” GoPro’s SVP of Corporate Communications Jeff Brown told Yahoo Finance. “It’s a growing concern. I know this happens — we have contacted Youtube, Facebook and Instagram to take things down in the past. Facebook’s great and they take things down right away. They’re really responsive.”

It’s probably a gargantuan task, even for Facebook, to vet and fact-check all of the newsy content published to the site. Regardless, it’s not unreasonable to expect them to be at least somewhat accountable.

Reader beware

“I have no idea who is responsible and I’m not overly concerned about it,” Brown said. “Most people recognize that it’s a scam and are suspicious about these articles.”

Meanwhile, ESPN’s director of communications Kevin Ota told Yahoo Finance that sports fans are “smart enough to know what’s fake from real ESPN content.” He noted that when he's flagged about these scam posts, he forwards the issues to the company’s legal department.

Indeed, it appears that the vast majority of the 933 commenters were aware that the post was a scam and expressed their outrage, disgust and disdain for the content. One comment captures the overall sentiment of people who happened to get this sponsored post:  “BS story for a BS ad.”

Comments on fraudulent post

Neither ESPN nor GoPro would disclose just how frequently they ask Facebook to take down scam posts, but both say they reached out regarding this post.

“My team says that this is a routine occurrence — that most of this stuff is recognized and eliminated automatically by Facebook, but they’re really great about moving fast on the ones we direct them to,” says Brown.

“It happens quite a bit because of our scale, wide-reaching presence and amount of content we have on various platforms,” Ota says. “But it’s not an actual concern. It’s a nuisance that we have to deal with. It’s not that we don’t take this stuff seriously. But Facebook is a good, responsive partner.”

It’s a complicated problem affecting more than Facebook

As digital media platforms have become increasingly interconnected, Facebook is not the only news site that has found itself hosting unapproved content. Many news sites, including the Yahoo media properties, host content that are fed in by partners.

The Facebook spokesperson says its engineering system is powered by “statistical analysis and multivariable algebra.” The company uses a combination of automated and manual systems to block accounts.

“Anti-spam systems run millions of times per second to catch and remove bad content and affiliated accounts,” the spokesperson said. “We also fight these spammers aggressively in court and have obtained nearly $2B in legal judgments. Your News Feed should be a place to see things from the people and organizations you care about, not spam, and we're committed to that.”

She said it’s important to keep in mind that humans review the reports, so just because you flag something doesn’t mean the post will be pulled down. “This is an intentional safeguard to prevent people from abusing the reporting tool,” she said.

All of this reflects the ongoing challenges in this rapidly evolving digital media landscape. There is only so much proactive mining that can be done to prevent 100% of all fraudulent content from making it online. Indeed, media organizations already have their hands full making sure their own staff aren’t falsifying, misreporting, or plagiarizing news.

Who’s benefiting from this?

Upon clicking the now-defunct link — and we’d warn against clicking these questionable links — people were redirected to a variety of different sites ranging from an ESPN-like site that goes to http://today-this.tv/eshy/alc/?voluumdata+BASE64dmlkLi4wm and a Vimeo-like page with the URL http://qiushibeike.com/. Both pages look identical to the sites they are pretending to be. And despite the Facebook post being pulled down, both links are still live.

Fake ESPN story
Fake Vimeo link

Vimeo’s director of communications Jessica Casano-Antonellis told Yahoo Finance that she hadn’t seen the fake article, but that “When We Were Nights” is indeed an actual short film created by GoPro and Camp4 Collective, a small production company.

Kristin Lane, Camp4 Collective’s studio manager, had not been aware of the fake article and said the company has no intention to reach out to Facebook.

“It appears that most people in the comments section are aware that it’s a fake news story; therefore we are not as concerned,” Lane said in email to Yahoo Finance. “We have not been in touch with GoPro or Facebook regarding the article and do not plan to utilize our minimal resources to do so at this time.”

“Should you have the resources and interest in reaching out to GoPro and/or Facebook regarding it, we thank you,” she said.

Reader beware.

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