A network of scammers used a ring of established right-wing Facebook pages to stoke Islamophobia and make a quick buck in the process, a new report from the Guardian reveals. But it’s less a vast international conspiracy and more simply that Facebook is unable to police its platform to prevent even the most elementary scams — with serious consequences.
The Guardian’s multi-part report depicts the events like a scheme of grand proportions executed for the express purpose of harassing Representatives Ilhan Omar (D-MI), Rashida Tlaib (D-MN) and other prominent Muslims. But the facts it uncovered point towards this being a run-of-the-mill money-making operation that used tawdry, hateful clickbait and evaded Facebook’s apparently negligible protections against this kind of thing.
The scam basically went like this: an administrator of a popular right-wing Facebook page would get a message from a person claiming to share their values that asked if they could be made an editor. Once granted access, this person would publish clickbait stories — frequently targeting Muslims, and often Rep. Omar, since they reliably led to high engagement. The stories appeared on a handful of ad-saturated websites that were presumably owned by the scammers.
That appears to be the extent of the vast conspiracy, or at least its operations — duping credulous conservatives into clicking through to an ad farm.
Its human cost, however, whether incidental or deliberate, is something else entirely. Rep. Omar is already the target of many coordinated attacks, some from self-proclaimed patriots within this country; just last month, an Islamophobic Trump supporter pleaded guilty in federal court to making death threats against her.
Social media is asymmetric warfare in that a single person can be the focal point for the firepower — figurative but often with the threat of literal — of thousands or millions. That a Member of Congress can be the target of such continuous abuse makes one question the utility of the platform on which that abuse is enabled.
In a searing statement offered to the Guardian, Rep. Omar took Facebook to task:
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Facebook’s complacency is a threat to our democracy. It has become clear that they do not take seriously the degree to which they provide a platform for white nationalist hate and dangerous misinformation in this country and around the world. And there is a clear reason for this: they profit off it. I believe their inaction is a grave threat to people’s lives, to our democracy and to democracy around the world.
Despite the scale of its effect on Rep. Omar and other targets, it’s possible and even likely that this entire thing was carried out by a handful of people. The operation was based in Israel, the report repeatedly mentions, but it isn’t a room of state-sponsored hackers feverishly tapping their keyboards — the guy they tracked down is a jewelry retailer and amateur SEO hustler living in a suburb of Tel Aviv who answered the door in sweatpants and nonchalantly denied all involvement.
The funny thing is that, in a way, this does amount to a vast international conspiracy. On one hand, it’s a guy in sweatpants worming his way into some trashy Facebook pages and mass-posting links to his bunk news sites. But on the other, it’s a coordinated effort to promote Islamophobic, right-wing content that produced millions of interactions and doubtless further fanned the flames of hatred.
Why not both? After all, they represent different ways that Facebook fails as a platform to protect its users. “We don’t allow people to misrepresent themselves on Facebook,” the company wrote in a statement to the Guardian. Obviously, that isn’t true. Or rather, perhaps it’s true in the way that running at the pool isn’t allowed. People just do it anyway, because the lifeguards and Facebook don’t do their job.