Back in early May, I noticed a new post format appear in the ever evolving arena of gaming Facebook’s algorithm. This was coming almost a year after the “still image presented as a video” trick pissed everyone off: plain memes saved as .vid files wedging a briefcase in the closing doors of the video content express train. Never mind that we didn’t get an answer about why video content was given an express train in the first place.
Craig Silverman wrote about these back in July of 2017… and if you read the article, (it’s fun!)… you’d find out that an anonymous source at Facebook denied to Buzzfeed that the video content express train is a thing. Apparently it’s all our fault.
The still meme video asshattery was checked and suppressed by Facebook soon enough. That era of sport seamlessly morphed into the “moving filaments and sparkles over the still meme”- which pissed people off even more than the original cheat. Sorta like a blow-up-doll would, motionlessly mouthing “Loser” at you from the passenger seat of a speeding car in the HOV lane while you are stuck in bumper to bumper traffic. (I only say that as a deeply resentful page manager who, on principle, refuses to employ the cheap tactics my page is dedicated to exposing.) Before the suppression of stage two could even be noticed by the average user, the tactic evolved once again.
This time the posts contained several elements, a mix of file types, both video and still. There were two versions of this- One, I call the tiled meme: a still meme image that is cut in half horizontally. The top half of the meme is presented as a still video, perhaps with music. The bottom half of the meme is posted as a jpg. When displayed in a single post- the two pieces line up like tiles with a thin line of grout between them.
I know. That’s a paint by number. No comment.
This format is popular with a few of the fake Native American pages. I was seeing it a lot. It was being used not just to get some extra surfacing, it was also being used to spread a lot of fake garbage- like this grammar trainwreck hoax about Willie Nelson being ill:
I also wrote this post about a Glen Douglas image being used as Birthday Bait: (and more birthday bait) I also want to point out that these examples of homogeneous garbage tile meme content were pulled from three different pages, Proud to be Native America, We are Native American and Native American Proud. None are Native American owned pages.
The tiled meme trick has some pitfalls, the individual elements sometimes collect their own sets of comments and can also be inadvertently shared alone- destroying the unity of the tiled post format.
There was even a format backlash page created on May 25, 2018 called “Meme Repair and Quality Memes” The page could be the next best thing since unsliced bread.
The other style of mixed file format that I noticed in Early May is a video and usually three photos which are stills pulled from the video. The effect is redundant to say the least- but packing four elements into one post must have had some beneficial effect as I saw many pages using it. I posted about it on May 12.
The week before I had made a spreadsheet in an attempt to get a handle on the size of the network behind these “Beautiful Nature” pages, and as I dug deeper into the tightly woven tangle, it was clear there was no end in sight. I eventually set a goal of listing 250 of them. The pages, like the content within them, were mass produced and formulaic. Some pages I entered in the sheet got the notation “more to mine”- that simply meant that I suspected that page would lead to yet another branch of networking but that I was trying to stay on the path I was already following.
Some people are confused when I include Kitten content in the list of abuses I warn people about. They seem to think that Fake News and partisian politics are where the corruption and abuse of the platform is taking place. I say when it comes to profit motivated players- the content is just the vector- what it actually is, that’s irrelevant. Learning to recognize the tactics is how you avoid the abuses. You can fact check Honey Pot Times stories till Snopes lists you as a benefactor- but as long as you keep going back for more of the same garbage from the same source with the same motivation pumping out the content- you are vulnerable to being suckered and you are supporting an abusive system that is spiraling downward. If people can’t recognize the abusive lie at the source, when a sick child’s picture is used as pray-bait- I can’t expect that they would recognize when a misquoted politician’s photo is being used as rage-bait. I had hoped that puppies and sunset content might be a less volatile subject to try to use as an education tool, because it is impossible to approach bogus politically divisive memes without being dismissed by the identity signalling sharer as merely supporting the “other side”.
What could possibly be wrong with “Beautiful Nature”? and why would I spend time documenting a network of serial sunset and hummingbird spammers?
1. The post format I had noticed was an obvious trick for surfacing. The importance of the content was not balanced with the force of the machine promoting it. This incongruity is a clear sign that there is something else at play. No one could reasonably think that it is so important to pull out all the surfacing stops that as many people as possible see and set their sights on an infinity swimming pool photo when the page isn’t even selling a room at the resort.
2. The network was doing what I call “cross amplification” They were sharing posts from one large page into many other large pages. Obviously the network was in possession of the raw content (I’m not saying they OWN it… I’m just saying they have it) they could just upload the content on as many pages as they want and this would produce cleaner posts- but by sharing a post from one page- to 30 different pages *they also own* that specific shared post could gain cumulative engagement power rather than each post having to start from square one to build its momentum. Most people don’t think about these things when they see a page share a post from another page. But this network was so abusive in it’s off topic cross amplification- some people were leaving bad reviews and seemed confused by the lack of focus. The reason why they were confused is that they weren’t comprehending that all the pages were coming from the same engagement mill.
3. I can’t even call it a content farm/ content mill- as it appeared to me that all of the content was stolen and used without attribution. This, more than any other thing, is the “crime” that makes the network the work of truly bad actors. The whole network is built on the foundation of stolen property. In the population of low-grade content consumers there seems to be a lot of confusion about copyright, with many believing that once something is posted online you no longer have control over who uses it. That may be true, but it does not mean that copyright does not exist. Facebook does such a piss poor job protecting the creators of the elements of photography, video and writing that are the essential components of “content” that a general attitude has been fostered that it’s perfectly legitimate to take and reuse what you find just laying around on the internet. A surprising number of people are unable to grasp the distinction between taking someone’s content and sharing it. Facebook doesn’t simply overlook these crimes against creative people, they have made their blind eye into a lucrative loophole, collecting advertising fees for tee shirts with stolen designs, collecting post boosting fees of freebooted video and monetizing instant articles of plagiarized stories.
If you don’t understand what freebooting is, or why there is any harm in it- here are two youtube videos that do a great job explaining it:
FIX : Smarter Every Day on Freebooting
Kurzgesagt on Freebooting
In regular practice- pages share on-topic material from multiple sources for the benefit of the interested page audience. They keep their audience engaged by creating and aggregating relevant content. Sharing posts from a variety of sources builds up community networks and helps out other content producers by putting their stuff in front of more people. This network did the opposite- it fed their audience a variety of in-network cross amplification content regardless of the theme. The content is severed from it’s source and beret of any important contextual imormation. People were commenting on photos of Dream Vacation pages asking, “Where is this?” and of course not getting an answer from the automated content factory that was merely scraping someone’s Pinterest for linkless uncaptioned unattributed photos.
Feel free to skip to the end if you want to get to the spreadsheet, I have to do an aside:
Let’s talk about Simplemost. This is an American content mill owned by the E.W. Scripps company based in Cincinnati Ohio. Scripps is an old newspaper and broadcasting company behind many local and national stations.
You may be see some familiar logos in this dramatic nationwide map.
Simplemost, in their own words: “The goal of Simplemost is to provide women with the news that can impact their lives, along with ideas and tips to help make things just a little easier.”
OK- I’ll just set the obvious insult to my entire being aside for this blogpost as it’s getting pretty long already… but I’ll just mutter… “What exactly does being a woman have to do with this?” …OK… flip-flop sales could be considered news… maybe. Especially if the journalist writes lengthy articles about the sale while maintaining that it’s not an advertisement (fine print: they do maybe get a small kickback from sales) We can know it’s not an ad because there are other ads placed within the “article”… you can’t sell ads inside other people’s ads now can you? that’s all the proof you need. Getting my women’s news from Simplemost makes me almost as happy as being invited to a Mary Kay party. The fact that Scripps doesn’t have a parallel content mill for men makes me wonder what that might look like… oh never mind, forget I asked.
If this is sparking your curiosity, Daniel Walters wrote an article for the Inlander about Simplemost content on the Facebook pages of local news stations back in February.
When the audience clicks on the Simplemost content- that makes money for the page owner. So you see- they can fake out 300,000 people to like a page allegedly about Beautiful Nature, and then slip them a link or twenty about stuff like a reboot of the show “The Nanny” and make money. (note: this screenshot shows a Simplemost instant article, so Facebook is also serving and profiting from targeted ads to the viewer) Simplemost pays the page for the traffic- advertisers pay Simplemost to show their ads to the visitors (or pays a little kickback when people buy products after reading Simplemost “articles”). The people who are being sent aimlessly around only pay with their time and digital footprints. Simplemost content, like the cross amplification I mentioned earlier- carries with it the cumulative weight of the rolling engagement snowball.
There is another mill called Providr- they are another content source the Beautiful Nature network is using. Providr is only interested in working with pages with a quarter million likes and up. My spreadsheet notes some of the pages sharing Simplemost and Providr content- but it may not be a complete listing, if I did not thoroughly scroll through the page posts- I may have missed it. I may have also not known to note the associations until I was deep into the job, which is now alphabetized.
I saw a lot of Providr content as I was hopscotching through the Beautiful Nature network last night. The cheap train trip map caught my eye over and over. So I had to do some backtracking when I saw the Providr train map associated with a website called incrediblenat.com. This is what Zia Uddin’s incrediblenat.com train-trip article looks like (whoohoo- I did it! I archived a webpage for a solid link in the future!…Providr’s website wouldn’t let wayback crawl it I guess) The 3 month old website is registered to Abdul Samad in Karachi. This website is featured prominently on the Facebook page “Luxury World” with over 1,100,000 likes. Does Providr also licence their content for filler on other websites (with faked bylines)? The article posted to Providr’s website on 12/13/17 does not name the author.
Before I get to the Beautiful Nature spreadsheet- I just wanted to mention this other strange little set of at least 12 pages I found, one has been disabled. I named this set “Pages with long and vulgar names” I remain stunned by my lack of naming imagination in the face of what I now understand could be infinite possibility. These pages all use Simplemost content. Some, like #12- almost exclusively. Other content mills used by these pages include postize.com, providr.com, viralthread.com, and teenmomtalknow.com I wonder what Simplemost thinks about their brand being the core content of pages like these?
This example from the Beautiful Nature network, “Wonderful Nature Clicks” I just pulled to show redundant excess- they have posted 15 Simplemost articles in the past five hours. That streak abruptly switches off to cross amplification of network page posts before going back to Simplemost- for a total of about 50 posts in 12 hours.
Here is a strange one- On the page “Stories in Picture” Tina left a negative one star review and two more people chimed in agreeing with her. Thank goodness some people are paying attention, but what follows… this is just the sort of thing that has me thinking people are asleep at the wheel. Guillermo posts a five star review using Tina’s negative comment word for word except he adds “excelente page” at the end. How weird.
Relentlessly curious as I am, I went to Guillermo’s profile to see if he had reviewed anything else and found this on the page WebArt. (this page was not included in the Beautiful Nature network and only appears connected through Guillermo)
This page “Beautiful Animals Moment” is full of awful reviews that don’t seem to be coming from bots- people are pissed!
“This page does not publish things according to its title, it shows animals been devored, animal suffering and it’s frecuently disgusting.Not animal friendly at all.I don’t want to see anymore.”
“Is this suposed to be funny or is it about animal torture ?
This page is not about beautiful animal moments at all.”
“Horrible, cruel, animal torture videos, this group should be closed down”
So about that…
I made the “Beautiful Nature” spreadsheet back on May 7th and 8th, I made a small post about it on the 12th and then I set it aside.
This week I was working on another spreadsheet- documenting military Romance scam profiles that are using the stolen photos and variations of the name William Galbraith- I feel the need to document reported profiles because Facebook ceased sending feedback reports in late May. Now there is zero record of reported profiles or feedback about Facebook’s action (or inaction) The reporting process is now a bit like putting notes in a bottle and tossing them into the sea. So hopefully spreadsheets like this (with over 100 same name profiles using photos that should be cataloged in a facial recognition database by now) may force a little bit of accountability and highlight how hollow their PR promises ring when they speak about their fantastic new tech that can detect bad actors.
This brought up a conversation with Felicia over at Unfakery who I had worked with on a botnest of autoposting profiles. That strange situation was publicized in a Buzzfeed article. Felicia said that amazingly, even after all the publicity, the bot accounts were still present on Facebook.
I wondered what was going on with the Beautiful Nature Network. Pages I had not reported, but merely listed. At the time- due to the effect of surfing hundreds of network pages for hours on end- my own newsfeed was overwhelmed with network shares from my own backstabby hummingbird and rolling fields of lavendar loving friends. At least from the algorithmic filter I’d created, it seemed as if that network was well on it’s way to total platform domination that week. So imagine my surprise when I opened my spreadsheet and began to open tabs- that many of the links were broken. Turns out, precisely 50% of the links I had managed to document were broken: 124 of 249. (as of 6/25/18) Well that’s interesting. I must not be the only person who can find banal pretty content problematic. Facebook was already on the case… but what case were they on? They took a much bigger bite out of the Beautiful Nature network than they ever did to the Fake Native pages from Kosovo. What was the violation those removed pages had committed that called for their removal? Big…BIG pages… gone. For what reason? I could guess- but the part that is confusing to me is that so many pages from the same network proved to be seriously problematic- yet 50% of them remain.
This list is just the tip of the iceberg, it is in no way complete.
Deleted page links are marked with red.
Here is the link to the spreadsheet