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Monday, Oct 26, 2020
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The News Site Was Bogus. Facebook Still Let It Build A Real Audience.

The Globe Independent used Facebook ads to widely promote plagiarized stories that were often critical of China.

In early August, the Globe Independent launched a website filled with news stories plagiarized from NBC News, the Washington Post, and other outlets. By September, the impostor news site had amassed more than 30,000 likes on Facebook thanks to dozens of ads it purchased, some of which were critical of China.

During an election season in which Facebook has promised to stop manipulation of its platform, these unknown purveyors of copy-pasted news violated the social network's policy against fake accounts, and may have evaded its rules for ads about political issues. The plagiarized site's activity, which went unnoticed until BuzzFeed News alerted Facebook, follows other high-profile failures that question the social media company’s ability to enforce its policies less than a month before the US election.

The Globe Independent page also unwittingly revealed other, apparently unrelated, inauthentic pages, thanks to Facebook’s “Related Pages” feature. Visitors to the Globe Independent’s page were suggested pages including “the Tide Hunter” and “the Star Lane.” Those are part of a network of over 120 pages, which have more than 1 million total likes and are running Facebook ads for what appears to be a cryptocurrency scam. A Facebook spokesperson told BuzzFeed News there was no connection between the Globe Independent page and the cryptocurrency pages but declined to comment further.

"Networks like this just show how profitable it can be to traffic in all kinds of online scams," said Joan Donovan, the research director of the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy. "In the early phase of a disinformation campaign, it can be difficult to tell what the motives are, but this shows just how crucial it is to use Facebook ads to grow audiences and stage legitimacy before really turning into a full-blown influence operation."

It’s unclear who was behind the Globe Independent site and Facebook page. The Globe Independent did not respond to BuzzFeed News’ emails and Facebook messages. Last Friday, the Globe Independent website was taken offline. Facebook removed the page Sept. 29 after BuzzFeed News asked about it.

A spokesperson declined to provide an on-the-record comment but said an internal investigation found the page was run by an inauthentic account, Facebook's term for fake or deceptive activity. They did not say what made Facebook conclude the account was inauthentic and declined to say how much the page had spent on ads.

Facebook’s action came weeks after Twitter suspended the Globe Independent’s account. Twitter declined to comment, but a source with insight into the suspension told BuzzFeed News that the Globe Independent’s account violated the company’s policies against spam, coordinated activity, or attempts to manipulate people. The source said there did not appear to be evidence it was part of a state-backed operation.

On its site, the Globe Independent claimed to be based in London. Its Facebook page showed that it was being managed by six accounts located in the US. None of its articles carried bylines, and all of the content viewed by BuzzFeed News was plagiarized from other news sites. Registration records for the Globe-Independent.com domain was registered on July 31 and listed Sierra Nevada Corporation, a Nevada-based aerospace company, as its owner. Greg McCarthy, Sierra Nevada’s director of strategic communications, told BuzzFeed News it did not own the domain and had no idea why its name was listed in the registration records.

"Just because Facebook has a transparency page [listing the location of managers] does not necessarily stop these cagey actors from covering over their true intentions, be they profit or political," Donovan said.

The Globe Independent Facebook page was created on July 29. Even though the red flags were obvious and abundant, Facebook allowed it to buy dozens of ads that helped the page grow its follower count to more than 30,000 people.

At its apparent height, the Globe Independent’s page had more than 60 active ads on Facebook. Some of the ads encouraged people to like its page, promising “exclusive content” from an “unbiased, independent news” source. Seventeen ads linked to articles that were critical of China's treatment of Uighurs, the Muslim minority whose people are being imprisoned and tortured by the Chinese government. At least seven ads were in Indonesian and linked to articles in that language.

The articles about Uighurs were copied and pasted from outlets including NBC News, Agence France-Presse, and Radio Free Asia. While many of its ads focused on China, the site also carried plagiarized content about world affairs, health, technology, and sports.

Along with being misled by the Globe Independent’s page, people were funneled to a network of other bogus news pages. Visitors to the Globe Independent’s Facebook page were recommended “Related Pages” that BuzzFeed News found are part of a network of more than 120 pages that masquerade as news pages in order to run ads for what appears to be a cryptocurrency scam.

The pages have names like “Path of Words,” “the Feedback,” and “Main Buzzfeed” and claim to provide news and information. “We deliver exciting news around the world,” reads the description of a page called “Fancy Time.”

Unlike the Globe Independent, these pages do not promote plagiarized content. Instead, they share properly credited links to articles from major English-language outlets, including BuzzFeed News.

These pages have also purchased Facebook ads to attract likes, gaining more than 1 million total fans in just a few months of operation. The goal appears to be to grow an audience and then target Facebook users around the world with ads for an apparent cryptocurrency scam.

BuzzFeed News found that at least nine pages in the network have purchased cryptocurrency ads in languages such as English, Danish, and French. The ads, which featured expensive cars and other luxury items, promised a quick way to get rich by trading cryptocurrency. It’s the same kind of offer as was put forward by an alleged cryptocurrency scam exposed by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project in March.

The pages and some of the cryptocurrency ads are still active as of this writing. A Facebook spokesperson said they remain "under review."

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