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Political Facebook Groups & Clickbait Satire Trolls

Editor's note: This is an issue that we here at The Contributor have fell victim to a handful of times in 2015, being too casual on Facebook in the name of humour. We ask that our readers continue to keep us on our toes, and make an effort to vet their posts. Funny is fun, but there are some serious issues that are ill served by misinformation. 

 

Online advertising is big business and sites that depend on it are getting really “creative” in using social media to drive traffic to their pages. If they can dangle some fluff piece with a lurid headline and make you click on it (or better, share it!), then the site can raise ad rates and generate more income. But what  happens if not enough people share your content? A whole family of “satire news” sites is hiring paid trolls to drop links on every Facebook page and group they can find.

TrollForHire

Satire trolls have pretty predictable behavior. They regularly share links from satire sites like “newslo,” “religionlo,” and “politicalo” without identifying them as satire – and keep doing even after being reprimanded. Unless you look at the URL of the link, it’s hard to tell by the headline, so the goal is to generate clicks and boost ad revenue.

That’s Capitalism in action, right? But there is a side effect to this kind of activity, and everyone who gets political news from social media needs to be alert to it.

As shocking as it may seem, a lot of people don’t exercise due diligence before sharing content. They rely on the headline or the first paragraph or two and then share it along with some outraged commentary: “can you believe this?” or “this guy is an idiot!” Their friends see it, trust the source, and share it – also without fact-checking.

Before you know it, “everybody” in your social network is sharing a meme and is absolutely sure that Sarah Palin went on talk radio and said we should turn the EPA’s job over to the Forestry Department because “trees are responsible for more pollution than automobiles.

Sure, it sounds like something she would say, but she didn’t.  However, it has the ring of what Stephen Colbert called “truthiness: “The part of seeming or being felt to be true, but not actually true.” And, by the way, the accuser of those dangerous trees?  That was Ronald Reagan.

The problem with sharing funny stuff that seems true – but isn’t?

  • It’s not factual. We’re part of what Karl Rove called the reality-based community, folks. Stick to the facts. If you provide commentary, make sure everyone knows it’s opinion.
  • It makes us look gullible and stupid. Because, you know, it’s not true, and we didn’t check it out.
  • It rewards bad behavior. Satire Web sites should clearly label content – without readers having to page down to the footer and find the “satire” disclaimer buried 3 clicks down from the home page.
  • It may expose the privacy of your group members. Members of a group can see the other members. They can send friend requests to each other, and someone who’s a personal stranger might seem ok if you’re both in a few of the same FB groups. There are software tools that allow users to harvest the data of member of Facebook pages and groups – and you can imagine the damage that people can do as “friends” of your members. Sure, people should be responsible for who they share info with, but do you really want to make it easy for scammers to contact your FB page members?

This isn’t an indictment of all satire sites. The Onion is one of the best-known and most widely shared. But it’s clear about being satire – even if some international news outlets don’t get the joke.  There are others however, that exist solely as clickbait.  FakeNewsWatch.com lists some of the offenders, but it leaves off these newer sites (that we are not providing links to!):

  • Newslo
  • Religionlo
  • Politicalo
  • DCPols

Administrators of Facebook political groups need to watch out of satire trolls from these and similar sites.  Here are a few warning signs:

  • Unusual names: Be careful with this one, and never make a determination based on that data point alone. For instance, “Jhon” looks odd, but it is an alternate spelling of the name “John.”
  • Odd personal information: one troll I ran across listed his occupation as “manager” at “Haward University.”  I’m not sure that Harvard University hires many people with the generic title of  “manager” – particularly one who can’t spell the school’s name.
  • Very recent membership in Facebook: A lot of these people joined “less than a month ago.” That’s because they don’t actually exist; it’s one person managing dozens (or more) fake profiles.
  • Limited friends lists. Fake people don’t have a lot of friends. The satire trolls are often friends with other satire trolls. It’s like one person creates a whole little universe of fake people.
  • International contacts. It sounds like a cliche, but it’s true: if the person lists contacts, jobs, or education in Nigeria, it’s likely fake. Same with spots in the Former Soviet Union.
  • Look at their public posts. Even if they have privacy setting enabled, you can usually see public posts that they’ve shared. If every one of them is from a satire site, there you go!  Troll.

The biggest clue is their behavior on your group page. Someone legitimately interested in your topic or candidate will post a link and then stay around and discuss it with the community. They’ll comment on other people’s posts too. However, the satire trolls don’t have the time for that. They drop a link and run to the next site.

Even though it can be time-consuming and a bit of a pain, I recommend that group administrators moderate requests to join.  It’s particularly important if you allow anyone to post content to your page. Moderating requests will probably take much less time than you think and will make your page a more valuable resource for the legitimate group members. People can get the information they want without having to wade through a lot of clickbait scam stuff.

I follow a number of politically-oriented Facebook groups, and what was once a minor annoyance with the fake news sites has become a major problem.  We can stop it if we just take a minute or two and verify the site before hitting that share button.

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