Media

Vampire Webpages Suck Content From Legitimate Progressive News Sites

A parasitic business model thrives on Facebook.

Some new media vampires on the internet block are pilfering content from independent journalism websites and deceitfully posting it as their own on Facebook, the premier social media platform.

These Facebook pages and their affiliated websites pose as progressive champions, but their content is largely copied, if not plagiarized, from legitimate news and opinion outlets with real reporters and analysts, not rewrite teams. Their goal appears to be making money by attracting millions of readers as unknowing users click on links or share their memes—photos with slogans—because viewer traffic generates advertising revenues via Google ads.

Anyone who has a Facebook page and pays attention to politics—and shares with a circle of friends—has seen the vampires’ work. Even professionals in media, information technology and progressive politics often share posts and links to affiliated sites such as  Occupy Democrats (5.9 million Facebook likes and 1.1 million monthly U.S. viewers on its website, according to Quantcast), The Other 98% (4.5 million Facebook likes; its related The Other 98 Percent Action Fund has 214,000 monthly U.S. viewers) and USUncut (1.5 million Facebook likes and 2.8 million monthly viewers). Indeed, there are hundreds of other pages and sites like these, such as Addicting Info, with 1.2 million Facebook likes, Liberal America with 754,000 Facebook likes, and a new six-week-old Facebook page, Resistance Report, with 144,000 Facebook likes.

Many subscribers and sharers of these Facebook pages don’t know about this content’s oft-pilfered origin nor its parasitic business model. They are unaware that these operations use software like Spike from Newswhip, an online analytic tool that some say is akin to spyware. It tracks viewer engagement with any website (likes, shares, comments, tweets, etc.) to find hot stories. Especially useful is its measure of “velocity,” or how quickly an article is taking off and provoking responses. Then, within an hour or less, these sites post their version on Facebook— often using the same photo and headline as the original, and linking to their quick rewrite with no credit given to the original article or its author. The rewrites steal the original's traffic, usurping its popularity and rerouting ad revenue driven from people clicking on the copycats.

To investigate this phenomenon, AlterNet started a free 14-day trial from Spike to track the vampire sites and their audiences. The New York Times magazine wrote about this trend last summer, but missed the plagiarism aspect. Nonetheless, its profile, titled, “Inside Facebook’s (Totally Insane, Intentionally Gigantic, Hyperpartisan) Political-Media Machine,” with the subhead, “How a strange new class of media outlet has arisen to take over our news feeds,” affirms the basic contours of the online vampire media industry. Surely, you’ve noticed: “A video of Bernie Sanders speaking, overlaid with text, shared from a source you’ve never seen before, viewed 15 million times. An article questions Hillary Clinton’s honesty; a headline questioning Donald Trump’s sanity.”

Want examples? On March 1, ThinkProgress.org, a progressive news site founded in 2005 by the Center for American Progress Action Fund, posted a fact-check report after President Trump’s misinformation-filled address to Congress the night before. It was titled, “Trump lied. Right-wing extremists—not foreigners—commit more terror attacks in the U.S.” Two hours later, ResistanceReport.com posted much the same piece, with a slightly altered headline, the same quotes and the same academic experts as ThinkProgress. Three hours later, OccupyDemocrats.com did the same thing.

This is how it appears on our Spike trial, where the two rewritten articles quickly steal the velocity and traffic from the original ThinkProgress piece:

Incredibly, in what appears to be a hasty rewrite, Occupy Democrats didn’t even bother to change the entire first paragraph, with the exception of turning two sentences into one, swapping a few words and adding an “and.” See the original Think Progress article and the Occupy Democrats rewrite below:

 

That same pattern, timeline and sequence is echoed on the Facebook pages of all these sites. First ThinkProgress posts, then The Other 98% posts a link to Resistance Report's version of the story, then Occupy Democrats debuts its own rewrite, and finally the Resistance Report posts its own, all within a couple of hours. Take a look:

 

 

 

An even more brazen example occurred on February 21. RawStory.com, which is one of the most-read progressive websites with a tabloid flair and a staff that specializes in finding stories that haven’t broken into the national news, reported at 12:25 EST that a Florida pastor who brought his daughter to a Trump rally was repulsed and left. Raw Story's headline was, “Pastor walks out on Trump’s ‘demonic’ Florida rally: ‘My 11-year-old daughter was sobbing in fear.’” Its photo showed Trump in an unbuttoned white shirt and blue jacket, his arms outstretched behind a podium.

An hour later, on the Occupy Democrats Facebook page, appeared a post with the same photo and headline, “Pastor storms out of Trump’s ‘demonic’ rally’: My 11-year-old daughter was 'sobbing in fear.'” Its time stamp, in Pacific Standard Time (in which AlterNet’s West Coast bureau is and this screenshot was taken) read 10:26am, an hour after the original went up, and it linked back to UsUncut.com. The same piece, with the same photo, headline and link to UsUncut.com, simultaneously appeared on The Other 98%’s Facebook page.

 

 

Pilfering content appears to be essential to the business model of these sites and Facebook pages. As the Times magazine profile notes, this business model is based on creating as many new Facebook pages as possible. It does not appear to be a coincidence that knockoffs of well-trafficking stories are appearing on a series of apparently related Facebook pages. Some of these sites, like Occupy Democrats, received many “pants on fire” and “false” grades from Politifact.org, underscoring their tenuous relationship with accurate reporting.

As a consequence of vampire pages and sites, progressives on Facebook are being misled as their newsfeeds are being inundated by operators out to make ad revenue profits or attract donations. Further, reader attention is being diverted from real independent journalism outlets. The vampires don't credit their sources, as legitimate media organizations do when rewriting or aggregating others’ content. And the vampires arguably are undermining efforts to fight back against the Trump authoritarian presidency.

When monthly readership at the eight most viewed progressive sites ranges from 18.2 million (Daily Kos) to 1.8 million (ThinkProgress), according to Quantcast, the plethora of sites like USUncut (2.8 million) and Occupy Democrats (1.1 million) is muddying the waters. The top eight independent progressive sites are Daily Kos, Raw Story (14.4 million), Mother Jones (14.3 million), Salon (11.4 million), AlterNet (5.9 million), the Guardian (4.7 million), Talking Points Memo (4.4 million) and ThinkProgress.

“I can see what’s happening—they’re dragging business away from serious places, so they can collect the ad money as parasites,” said David Cay Johnston, a top investigative reporter whose coverage of taxes and legal loopholes at the New York Times won a Pulitzer Prize. “That’s a really terrific story that needs to be told, and what does it mean about how it leads people away from and damages places like your website, which clearly struggle to keep going. [It raises questions like] What are these guys up to? What are they doing? How much are they getting paid?"

Neither Facebook nor USUncut returned email and Facebook message requests for comment.

Meanwhile, it appears a new Facebook page has emerged that looks almost identical to UsUncut’s page. It’s called Resistance Report, which coincidentally (or perhaps not coincidentally) is the name of former U.S. Labor Secretary Robert Reich’s very popular Facebook page.

Editor's Note: AlterNet is a member of an advertising network that is owned and operated by Raw Story, one of the websites whose content is being hijacked. Also, AlterNet and Raw Story share a staffperson, who is in charge of AlterNet's advertising.

Numbers from Quantcast and Facebook were collected March 1-6.

Main story image credit: Facebook

Steven Rosenfeld covers national political issues for AlterNet, including America's democracy and voting rights. He is the author of several books on elections and the co-author of Who Controls Our Schools: How Billionaire-Sponsored Privatization Is Destroying Democracy and the Charter School Industry (AlterNet eBook, 2016).

Ivy Olesen is an editorial assistant in AlterNet's office in Berkeley, CA.

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