There’s nothing new about clickbait posts on Facebook. Social media is a relentless contest for attention, like junior high. We’re used to seeing a lot of harmless, banal mommy-chum like this:
Aw, how funny! Click, share.
This, however is a little different:
Same post, with the same meme, on the same page, a couple of weeks apart produces results that differ by orders of magnitude. It could be that the second one is just newer, but based on the second post’s engagement trajectory that doesn’t seem to explain the difference. Scrolling through other memes on the page another pattern emerges. The difference appears to be the “with” accounts, other social media entities “tagged” to assist with promotion.
What are those accounts and why do they matter? It isn’t clear and there’s no definite pattern. A lot them are, for lack of a better term, squirrelly. They seem to be “promoter accounts,” generating dozens of posts of day consisting mostly of spam. Some are offshore. A few appear to be ordinary people. Why these tagged accounts deliver such huge impact is unclear, but the results are impressive. How this works is murky, but it’s clear that someone has found a way to gain absolutely stellar reach for these apparent spam posts. What they have in common is help from affiliate networks.
If you spend any time on Facebook you’ve probably noticed a blizzard of question memes coming from clickbait accounts. You’ve likely either commented on them yourself or seen comments from close friends. Many of these posts look like they’re probing for answers to security/verification questions, but the ugly reality is that your passwords are nearly worthless. Chances are your passwords are already circulating on the dark web, sold in batches of millions for as little as a few thousand dollars. Unless you hold the password to something wildly valuable, like major corporate or government assets, nobody cares except kids playing around.
By contrast, what could I learn about someone by knowing their answers to these questions?
How valuable would it be to build up profiles of millions of social media accounts based on these answers, while also learning the contours of their social networks? Feed that kind of sentiment data through a machine learning algorithm and I could build a dataset on which to build a powerful disinformation campaign. Someone seems to think there’s value here, investing significant time and money by recruiting affiliate networks to distribute this content and gather results.
Some of these posts seem more obviously aimed at personality data:
Going a little further, there’s a tranche of questions circulating that look more clearly political:
How old are you? Where do you live? What are your entertainment tastes and how far do you live from your hometown? Properly scrubbed, these answers could probably predict your ’16 and ’20 Election preferences with 90%+ accuracy. Sure, that first post won’t accurately predict your birth year, but that’s the point. Look at the comments (running into hundreds of thousands) and you’ll see people simply posting that data, plus colorful details. Thanks to advances in sentiment analysis and the declining cost of computation power, I can get remarkable insights from masses of text-based data.
What data do these posts produce? For each account that interacts with these posts, page administrators can use Facebook Insights to query aggregate information on post reach and demographics, but that’s for rookies. With a little python expertise responses on my page can be scraped directly from Facebook and stored for analysis. There are legitimate paid services that will do this, but this would likely be an in-house capability for social media affiliate networks. Janie in Memphis with her mommy blog or Steve in Phoenix with his RV musings might enjoy a little extra money each month from their social media engagement. Meanwhile the larger network with administrator access to their accounts is collecting the real gold in the form of individual user data.
Without more research, or perhaps even a subpoena, it’s impossible to nail down exactly what’s happening here, but there are some clear precedents. If these affiliate networks aren’t being used to improve on CA’s voter profiling project it would be a surprise.
Don’t take candy from strangers and don’t feed your personal information to bots. If that mommy blog is jammed with ads and promotions, leave immediately. For context, compare the layout and content on an authentic blog like Scary Mommy with the spam, ads, and brain-numbing botspeak you’ll encounter on a MediaVine blog like the A Typical Mom. The difference is easy to spot.
Watch this space. There’s a pretty good chance that the big data scandal of the 2024 Election is unfolding on your Facebook feed right now.