As the rain started falling in Houston, the anonymous authors went to work.
Writing under pseudonyms and hiding behind the pretense of satire, they churned out lies, dressed them up as news, and then let Facebook’s platform do their dirty work, spreading their deliberate falsehoods far and wide.
As a result, millions of people were exposed to ― and believed ― false stories like this one, headlined: “Black Lives Matter Thugs Blocking Emergency Crews From Reaching Hurricane Victims.” (The opposite was actually true: BLM Houston has been actively collecting and distributing aid and helping recovery efforts.)
One website alone, “Flash American News,” spread that narrative to more than 1 million people via Facebook. Numerous other similar websites also shared their own versions via the social media network, selling the lie by using photos taken from other totally unrelated stories.
While some might readily recognize the story as fake, plenty who encountered it on Facebook sure didn’t.
“These hoodlums need to go away for a long time!” One commenter wrote after the story was shared on the “fanclubtrump” Facebook page. “Make them regret what they are doing keeping hurt, innocent people from getting help is dispicable!” [sic]
“This is absolutely despicable!!!!” another user added. “Tell me please how does this help anything or anybody! All it does is show the world that these people are heartless, uncaring, sorry excuses of what a human being should be!!!”
Though the story is fake, its impact in the real world is not.
Other Harvey fake news targets
Similar disinformation campaigns singled out other groups frequently targeted by conservative media and the so-called “alt-right,” shaping real-world opinions with fake stories spread unchecked on Facebook.
Muslims were also accused in several fake stories of refusing to let Harvey victims seek shelter in mosques. (Again, the opposite is true: Houston-area mosques opened their doors to thousands, even as Joel Osteen’s 16,800-seat megachurch drew criticism for remaining closed.)
The imam pictured in the fake story above lives in Canada and says he’s never even been to Texas.
Nevertheless, a version distributed via DailyPostFeed.com (other sites also shared other variants) was shared to 795,680 people via Facebook.
Another highly-circulated fake story claimed that flooding during Hurricane Harvey somehow “uncovered” a huge cache of weapons and ammo apparently hidden there by the Obama administration, for the purposes of staging a coup to return to power.
While the above website claims to be satire, it does little to announce that to visitors. Per CrowdTangle, the above story was shared to 769,377 people on Facebook.
The Clinton Foundation was also (falsely) accused of sending water to Houston and charging $7 per bottle for it.
Misinformation on the internet is hardly a new or even rare occurrence. But one common thread here is Facebook.
The social media network has enabled the rapid spread of deliberate, harmful falsehoods.
As of now, the company is apparently unwilling to do much to stop the spread of deliberate misinformation.
In response to outcry over similar disinformation campaigns during the 2016 election, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg dismissed as “pretty crazy” the idea that fake news on his site could have influenced the election’s outcome. The company’s COO Sheryl Sandberg agreed.
Nevertheless, Facebook calmed some critics by rolling out a system months later to flag questionable sources of information as “disputed” and reconfiguring its “trending topics” module. Judging by the rampant spread of the above stories, however, deeper problems remain.
On Wednesday, Facebook representatives acknowledged to congressional investigators that the company sold around $100,000 worth of ads during the 2016 election to a Russian content farm known for producing pro-Kremlin messages, along with what Facebook itself described as “divisive social and political messages.”
CORRECTION: Several different photographs accompanied fake news articles about mosques in Texas. An earlier version of this article used a photo of an imam who is not the one who lives in Canada. The photo has been replaced.