COVID-19, Fact Checking

How misinformation turns into money

Photo: Alina Najlis y Santiago Quintero
Esta publicación también está disponible en: Español

Misinformation is appealing, travels fast, and gets people to visit the sites and videos where it is spread. And attention from users can turn into money. Some misinformants take advantage of these sites to sell their products or ask for donations, or to develop their personal brand from which they later profit.

This investigative report from Chequeado explains how the mechanics that allow misinformants to transform misinformation into money work.

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An event with health professionals participating that was broadcast live on Facebook on March 4 at 11 a.m. in Buenos Aires, Argentina, attracted an audience of 1,200 people. Within a week, the video accumulated 51,000 views and had been shared 6,300 times on the social network. Two weeks later, one of its segments was tagged on the platform with an alert about it disseminating false information.

The meeting, called “Doctors against Deception,” was convened by the organizations Argentine Epidemiologists and Doctors for the Truth, among others. During the meeting, the speakers spoke extensively against public health measures and the care recommendations aimed at mitigating the pandemic: using masks, diagnostic tests, social distancing and vaccination.

Phrases like “plandemic”; “hypothetical”, “alleged” or “fabricated” virus; “highly dangerous” vaccines; “injections of genetically experimental material, which are already causing serious or even fatal damage”; “incorporation of microchips and nanobots into humans”, and “uncertain and very low specificity” PCR tests, all of them false, were cited within the three-hour event that was broadcast by the web channel TLV1 (a medium that originated in the city of Buenos Aires, Argentina) on its Facebook profile. Towards the end, advertisements were shown and the director of the digital medium, Juan Manuel Soaje Pinto, asked for financial support while providing his bank account number at Banco Patagonia.

With 52,900 followers on Facebook and programming with a variety of themes that range from the sanctification of beatified people and nationalism to “vaccines to kill children” and the promotion of chlorine dioxide (a common and very dangerous misinformation), the TLV1 website is just one among the many participants who aspire to make a living by spreading content on social media.

In addition to being a field of connection, debate and entertainment, these platforms have an economic value that can be capitalized on to sell products and services, position a speech, build up a personal brand or generate a large and loyal community of followers. But it’s also possible to circulate false information about the pandemic there.

If a market is displayed on the audiences and content on the Internet in which users, brands, advertising agencies and social networks themselves participate, is it also possible to make money with misinformation about COVID-19? How do you reach a public willing to financially support those who broadcast these messages? What tools are used to profit from spreading conspiracy theories, false medical information or the open fight against the policies and recommendations of health authorities to combat a pandemic?

Misinformation isn’t something exclusive to networks, but it precedes and exceeds them,” warned Eugenia Mitchelstein, professor and researcher with the department of social sciences at the University of San Andres in Argentina.

“What changes then? Each of the users can share it; the phenomenon is amplified by facilitating the recirculation of content among more people and at a faster speed. Each one of us is, potentially, a repeat node for false information,” said Mitchelstein.

She added, “There is a democratization of the possibility of producing, distributing and making money from false information, which isn’t necessarily good. [Social] networks are supposed to have controls so this doesn’t happen. They work with fact checkers and use content moderation systems to identify, and not end up rewarding, pages that post false information. At the limit, they can remove them. But it’s impossible to audit the truthfulness of everything that is posted.

The Business in Argentina

Argentina has 35 million Internet users, who increased their use of social networks during the isolation and social distancing measures adopted during the pandemic.

According to Comscore, a consulting firm that measures and analyzes audiences and the digital market, between January 1st and December 20, 2020, 6.5 million posts were viewed on social networks in that country, which had 2.7 billion interactions (“likes”, comments, views, downloads or shares received by a post). The platform that generates the most interactions in that country is Facebook (which accounts for 47% of the total), followed by Instagram (45%), Twitter (5.9%) and YouTube (2.1%).

Regarding the use of social networks in Latin America, about 82% of Latinos had access to social networks during 2020, which was an increase of 1.6% compared to the end of 2019, according to this same consulting firm.

In Costa Rica, Facebook continues to prevail as the most used network with more than 3.3 million active users, according to the most recent report from iLifebelt (ABC.CR: Costa Rica digital report, 2021). In second place, with less than half the users that Facebook has, is Instagram with 1.5 million users.

There are several ways to make money from content on social networks. In broad terms, it can be said that there are two main models.

First, there are the business schemes designed by the web platforms or social networks themselves, which establish their content policies and monetization methods, terms of use, rate systems, notification formats and payment methods.

For example, YouTube has its Partner Program, through which it pays money to content creators for ads played on the videos they produce for that network. This allows them to encourage the development of original productions for their platform. Instagram, for its part, doesn’t provide this type of incentive to users in Argentina. Instead, it charges in exchange for giving more visibility to posts. For example, people and companies can pay the platform to make their posts reach more of a target audience.

Second, beyond those models, users can exploit visibility on social media to their advantage to develop digital marketing and influence strategies targeting their followers. There’s a wide range. They can promote their own services and products, or get paid by an investor to promote a brand or spread a message (sometimes clearly and transparently, but most of the time, not), or to showcase a product.

Between both alternatives, there are many gray areas. It’s a difficult market to estimate because rates depend on many variables.

Beyond the monetization strategies proposed by the companies, each social network profile is a potential display case to advertise tools to obtain payments and donations: bank accounts, international or national payment platforms such as PayPal or MercadoPago, subscriptions to Patreon (a membership system to establish tools and monthly subscription services in dollars), and cryptocurrencies.

Underground Economy

The misinformation business is even less transparent. “There are hypotheses and little certainty, but clearly there are economics not too traditional in misinformation. Sometimes it’s more about an ideological battle, for a particular interest or manipulation, than strictly a business. There are also misinformation campaigns that are not directly monetized by the networks, with trolls and influencers’ managers who play semi-strange games,” a specialist in digital marketing strategies who asked to remain anonymous explained to Chequeado.

The fanatic audiences have shown that they are more intense and gather a greater number of followers,” he added. It’s a strategy developed by many people who want to build a digital identity: go out to fight against something, put themselves at the extreme, generate fanaticism and gain a bigger audience to later be able to make money from it indirectly. When they reach 50,000 followers, that’s it; a brand or some politician can show up to continue monetizing.”

The truth is that it’s simple and inexpensive to produce a video with fake news and effective words, from looking at trends, keywords and topics of interest on the networks. The next step is to upload it and bet on it being viewed and going viral. Content verification generally comes later, done by third parties like fact checkers, when the damage is already done.

Measuring how much misinformation costs abroad is also complex. From the United States, Joshua Braun, researcher and associate professor of journalism at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, pointed out that “while some of the monetization can occur within the social media sites themselves, the misinformation can frequently be hosted on an external website that is promoted through the networks. Those sites often make money from digital advertising, but because we don’t have access to their traffic numbers or the rates they get for the ads they publish, it’s hard to know exactly how much they are earning.”

 “The most sophisticated estimates probably come from the Global Misinformation Index, a group of experts that investigate these matters. In July 2020, they published a report that analyzed the websites that had disinformation about COVID-19 and the digital advertising tools they used. Then, they estimated the traffic figures and advertising rates based on data that was publicly available. They concluded that the top performing COVID-19 misinformation sites had made about $25 million during the first six months of 2020. It should be noted that this figure was just from English sites,” he also said.

Credit: Alina Najlis y Santiago Quintero

Conspiracy Theories

Misinformation about COVID-19 on social networks is reproduced on a global scale. In a situation of high uncertainty, the main risk is that it might influence people’s behaviors and discourage compliance with care and prevention measures to combat the pandemic.

Between June and September of 2020, the First Draft organization released a sample of 1,200 posts about vaccines on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook in Spanish, English and French, which generated just over 13 million interactions. The study which included Facebook pages in Spanish, the vast majority administered from Latin American countries identified the content of the main messages: that vaccines are ineffective, unsafe and even lethal; that the ones based on RNA can modify DNA, or that they are part of population reduction or human engineering projects.

The idea that makes up 40% of conspiracy theories is that “the vaccines will serve as tools to introduce microchips into people and develop massive population monitoring systems.”

And in early April 2020 in the United Kingdom, an investigation by Moonshot an organization that applies technology to mitigate damage on the Internet recorded a peak of 600 hashtags daily on Instagram and Twitter that explicitly linked 5G technology to the pandemic. 

More recently, the February report from the European Science-Media Hub which monitors misinformation about COVID-19 on social media, websites and blogs reached a similar conclusion about the central ideas of these messages: that the vaccines negatively affect human fertility, modify human DNA and cause new variants of the virus. They also claimed that using masks doesn’t work, that it causes bacterial pneumonia and “damages all of the body organs.” Regarding PCR tests, it’s said that they are a fraud and are used to prolong quarantines. All of these claims are false.

To control the spread of false information about the pandemic, social networks were changing their content policies, which establish what is and isn’t allowed to be published.

“Our goal is that the information spread is reliable. We established a series of guidelines and requirements that, if not met, the video will be removed. And, in some cases, depending on the type of violation, the channel can be eliminated”, Antoine Torres, head of YouTube Argentina, told Chequeado.

We do not allow content that denies the existence of COVID-19, that promotes remedies that could be harmful to health and we follow the recommendations of the World Health Organization (WHO) and the health organizations of the different countries,” Torres added.

With 500 hours of audiovisual material that is uploaded to the platform per minute, the executive admits that it’s “impossible to have a human verify all the content from the moment it’s published, so controlling misinformation is complex.” As other Internet platforms also do, monitoring and supervising of content is mainly done with automated systems that are complemented by human labor.

There is also the possibility that users themselves report the content. From February 2020 to December, YouTube reported that more than 800,000 videos related to “dangerous or misleading information about the coronavirus” have been removed.

The COVID-19 content policy includes misinformation that contradicts guidelines from WHO and local health authorities regarding the diagnosis, treatment, prevention and transmission of the virus. However, content harmful to health tends to be reproduced and to go viral much faster, and some of them still remain.

Other platforms moved forward in a similar vein. Between March and October of 2020, Facebook reported that it removed more than 12 million content items on Facebook and Instagram due to having misinformation about COVID-19 “that could create a physical risk,” as well as “publications with false claims about cures for COVID-19, treatments, availability of essential services in an area and the severity of the outbreak.”

The company said that worldwide, it worked with “more than 80 fact-checkers to qualify content as false or misleading (such as conspiracy theories about the origin of the virus).” Among those fact checkers is Chequeado, which is part of the Third Party Fact Checking program.

Once the content item is classified as false, “its distribution is reduced” and “warning labels with more context” are placed, revealed a report from Facebook. In April 2020 alone, “warnings were displayed on approximately 50 million Facebook posts based on around 7,500 articles from verifiers.”

When consulted by Chequeado, Facebook chose to respond in writing, stating: “Following the recommendations of leading health organizations, including WHO, we are expanding the list of claims that we remove. Now, we’ll include claims that have already been disproven about the coronavirus and the vaccines.” These claims include the following, among others: that the COVID-19 vaccines are not effective in preventing the virus, that it’s safer to get the virus than to be vaccinated, and that vaccines are toxic, dangerous, or cause autism.

Alternative Path

To circumvent policies on using social networks, which became much more active with the pandemic, those who produce misinformation are migrating their content to applications such as Telegram, SafeChat, Gab, Bitchute, Rumble, Odysee and Lbry.tv. But they maintain their presence on the networks that reach more people  YouTube, Facebook and Instagram to promote the posts they disseminate on other sites, the ways to receive payments and donations, or to partially host their content.

On the homepage of its website, the TLV1 channel highlights a talk with Argentine doctor “Chinda” Brandolino titled “After abortion, vaccines to kill children already born,” promotes the sanctification of Blessed Ana Catalina of Emmerich and publishes the article “CDS (acronym for chlorine dioxide). Cure, scientifically proven.” That channel also disseminated a talk by Argentine doctor Luis Marcelo Martinez, whose statements have been disproven by Chequeado, in which he claimed that “nanobots are being detected in the swabs” of the PCR tests and that “the objective is to reduce the population by means of massive sterilization.”  Things said by Brandolino have also been disproven several times by Chequeado.

The medium maintains a tepid presence on YouTube, where they currently have just 11 videos and promote the digital systems through which they accept donations. Although they were more active on that social network until the end of 2020, in December they announced that they were restructuring, stating, “Due to YouTube’s censorship of the TLV1 channel, we have temporarily hosted the programs from the last two years” on the Lbry site. According to data from SocialBlade, the censorship complaint resulted in them getting more followers on YouTube, growing from 1,960 in December to 9,930 today.

From the mass popularity of Facebook, this web channel not only takes advantage of the repercussions of the “Doctors against Deception” event, but also publishes in detail there the ways available for them to receive payments and contributions: bank account number, cryptocurrencies (Bitcoin, Litecoin, Dash, Etherum), PayPal, MercadoPago, Patreon and donation levels ranging from $2.50 to $20.

Recently, they added the option to “become a collaborator” to their Facebook page cover, allowing people to donate about $5 per month with various credit cards through Facebook Pay. In return, collaborators will get a “special badge” that will be displayed next to their comments on TLV1’s posts and live videos, according to the site. But they clarify that “you can remove it whenever you want.”

The Price of Health

In Latin America, according to Comscore, posts from influencers represented 16.3% of all of the content on all kinds of topics. The network with the highest number of influencers is Instagram (with 37%), followed by Facebook (30%), YouTube (28%) and Twitter (5%).

Either companies, businesses or individuals can pay and advertise on Instagram and on Facebook too for their posts to gain greater visibility. The initial investment is “economical, since it starts at $1 per day,” Alejandro Rajman, CEO of the digital marketing agency Zlatan Advertising, told Chequeado. Other platforms, like LinkedIn, “are more expensive and the advertising rates start at $13,” he said in comparison.

In the absence of a formal program, users can use Instagram as an amplified digital showcase. As happens with other media, nothing prevents mentioning a product or a message from having a price and being billed outside the platform.

Today, for example, it’s used to carry out product promotions through “micro-influencers,” users who have 10,000 followers on Instagram, or even less, with whom they trade products in exchange for them showing them on the network,”  Rajman continued.

Another strategy is personal marketing. With 41,100 followers on Instagram, Argentine doctor Matelda Lisdero presents herself as a disseminator of the “5 Biological Laws.” Her statements have been disproved by Chequeado. There, she promotes her courses on this topic with the “introductory” seminar costing $50 publishes a magazine that she translates herself and gave free talks by Zoom, directed toward teachers, under the slogan “Do you work at a school? Classes starting… Are you scared?”

In addition to doing “live” video feeds frequently from her Instagram account in which she elaborates on her approach to health⎯ the doctor shares videos and posts that deny the existence of the virus and the pandemic, makes fun of those who use face masks, questions the effectiveness of PCR testing, discredits the virus’ transmission through aerosols and discourages vaccination, all of which goes against the available evidence. In addition, she assures her audience that COVID-19 “is not spread from person to person” because “each one gets sick from what they can based on the perception of fear.”

Perhaps to attract the attention of her audience, Lisdero shares posts that reject public health policies with simplicity and little argumentation, such as, “A positive CRP (…) doesn’t necessarily mean that you are infected or that you can infect others, or that you’re sick. It’s pure speculation;” using masks generates “fear,” “submission” and “reinforces the dogma that we’re in a pandemic;” “the infections are a theory;” “don’t take a test;” “the vaccine isn’t going to help me;” “studies of vaccines having 95% effectiveness is not true (sic).”

The “disseminator” strengthens her positioning strategy with a presence on Telegram where she has 1,300 subscribers and a YouTube channel, created in April of 2020, which has 3,570 subscribers.

More than a year after the pandemic was declared, those who circulate false information on social networks were adapting their speeches to the changes in a scenario that was always dominated by uncertainty. And they took advantage of available tools to get their share of the digital business. Although it’s hard to estimate how much money they invoice or what the value of their content is, the truth is that misinformation has also become a dangerous commodity.

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This investigation is part of “The Misinformants,” a series of investigative reports on different people who have misinformed during the pandemic, which is being carried out by LatamChequea, the network of Latin American fact checkers coordinated by Chequeado, and has revisions from participating organizations and journalist Hugo Alconada Mon.

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