When Facebook removed dozens of Canadian anti-government “Freedom Convoy” groups from its platform earlier this year, it did not do so because of extremism or conspiracies that ran rampant within the various protest movements. It was because those groups were being targeted by scammers to illicitly obtain money. Widespread networks of spammers and profiteers, some based as far afield as Vietnam or Romania, had set up task forces using fake or hacked Facebook accounts in an attempt to make money off of political agitation.
Make money off of political outrage
That foreign networks of social media scammers have taken advantage of a divisive political issue is nothing new. Before the investigations into the operations of Russian troll factories during the US presidential election, and the culture war conflicts over content moderation, one of the biggest challenges facing social media platforms was speculators who promoted fake news and spam for easy money. Hundreds of websites imitating legitimate media outlets promoted their content on social media and reaped hefty ad revenue from the traffic they generated.
Platforms like Facebook have been cracking down on such fraudulent activity since 2016, but the global disinformation industry remains and is expanding with ever-increasing power. In recent years, these for-profit disinformation networks have capitalized on the popularity of conspiracy movements and far-right groups on the Internet, creating content targeting anti-vaccine protesters and supporters of the opaque group QAnon.
disinformation for profit
It is difficult to know the exact extent of the disinformation industry, as it operates as part of an underground economy and comes in various forms. In addition to content factories and ad revenue schemes, there are private companies around the world that are contracted to create fake engagement or promote political propaganda. In 2021 alone, Facebook said it took down 52 coordinated influence networks in 32 countries that tried to direct or corrupt public debate for strategic goals.
In addition, small networks can have a huge impact if they effectively use online groups to organize and raise funds. In the case of the Freedom Convoy accounts, many of the larger Facebook groups involved appeared to be run by fake accounts or content factories from numerous countries. Facebook took down many of these groups, but not before Convoy supporters raised more than €7 million in crowdfunding and generated widespread attention on social media.
A very well planned framework
Recent research has shed light on how some of these disinformation operations work, and they always follow the same pattern: taking advantage of people’s outrage to bombard them with disinformation and turn them into fans of a cause. This way it is much easier to get the money later.