How misinformation turns into money
by Mariana Pernas
An event in which health professionals participated, and which was broadcast live on Facebook on March 4 at 11 am in Buenos Aires, Argentina, captured an audience of 1,200 people. After 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 sections was tagged on the platform with an alert about the falsification of information that was spilled there. During that meeting, called "Doctors against deception" and convened by Argentine Epidemiologists and Doctors for the Truth, among other organizations, the exhibitors spoke out against the public health measures and the care recommendations aimed at mitigating the pandemic: use of chinstrap , testing, social distancing and vaccination. Disinformation is attractive, travels fast and takes visits to the sites and videos where it is spread. And user attention can be turned into money. Some misinformants take advantage of these spaces to sell their products or ask for donations, or develop their personal brand with which they later profit. How the mechanisms that allow misinformants to transform misinformation into money work.
Words like "plandemic"; "hypothetical", "suspected" or "fabricated" virus; "highly dangerous" vaccines; "Injections of genetically experimental material that are already causing serious or even fatal harm"; "Incorporation into humans of microchips and nanobots", and "uncertain and extremely low specificity" PCR tests, all of them false, were cited within three hours of the event, which was broadcast on the Facebook profile of the TLV1 web channel. Towards the end, advertisements were shown and the director of the digital medium - Juan Manuel Soaje Pinto - asked for financial support while the number of his bank account at Banco Patagonia was disseminated.
With 52,900 followers on Facebook and a diverse thematic agenda that ranges from the sanctification of pious women and nationalism to "vaccines to kill children" and promotion of chlorine dioxide (a common and very dangerous misinformation ), the TLV1 website is just one of the many. many actors who aspire to earn a living by disseminating content on social networks.
Because in addition to being a field of engagement, debate and entertainment, these platforms are a space of economic value that can be capitalized on to sell products and services, position a speech, build a personal brand or generate a large and loyal community of followers. But it is also possible there to circulate false information about the pandemic, effective in attracting attention and with the potential to cause confusion and harm during a health crisis such as the current one.
If a market in which users, brands, advertising agencies and social networks themselves participate, unfolds over online audiences and content, is it also possible to make money with disinformation 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 the dissemination of conspiracy theories, false medical information or the open fight against the policies and recommendations of health authorities to combat a pandemic?
"Disinformation is not something exclusive to networks, but it precedes and exceeds them", warns Eugenia Mitchelstein, professor and researcher at the Department of Social Sciences at the University of San Andrés. "What changes then? That each of the users can share it; the phenomenon is amplified by facilitating the re-circulation of content among more people and at a higher speed. Each one of us is, potentially, a node of repetition of false information ”. And he adds: “There is a democratization of the possibility of producing, distributing and making money with false information, which is not necessarily good. Networks are supposed to have controls to prevent that from happening: 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 cancel them. But it is impossible to audit the veracity of everything that is published ”.
The content of the business
Argentina has 35 million Internet users, who during the isolation and distancing measures adopted during the pandemic deepened their consumption of social networks. According to Comscore, a consultancy that measures and analyzes audiences and the digital market, between January 1 and December 20, 2020, 6.5 million publications were consumed in the country on social networks that had 2.7 billion interactions ( "Likes", comments, views, downloads or shares that a publication receives). The platform that generates the most interactions in the country is Facebook (it accounts for 47% of the total), followed by Instagram (45%), Twitter (5.9%) and YouTube (2.1%).
There are several ways to monetize content on social networks. Broadly speaking, it can be said that there are two main models.
First, there are the business schemes designed by the platforms themselves, which work within their framework and in accordance with their content and monetization policies, rules of use, rate systems, ad formats, and means of payment. For example, YouTube has its Partner Program , through which it pays money to content creators who receive advertising on the videos they produce for that network, allowing it to encourage the development of original productions for its platform. Instagram, for its part, in Argentina does not provide this type of incentive to users, but charges in exchange for giving more visibility to posts; For example, people and companies can pay the platform to make their posts reach a target audience.
Second, outside of these models, users can exploit the visibility provided by social networks to their advantage to develop influence and digital marketing strategies with their followers. The range is wide: they can promote their own services and products, or get paid by an investor to spread a brand or message (sometimes clearly and transparently and most of the time, not), or to showcase a product.
Between both alternatives there are many grays. And it is a difficult market to estimate, because the rates depend on many variables. According to the Social Blade site, which estimates the range of what a content creator would be paid based on YouTube's public statistics, an Argentine channel with almost 3 million followers and 242 million views can receive per year between US $ 10,900 and US $ 174,000; while another channel with 56,000 subscribers and 3.4 million views can bill between US $ 64 and US $ 1,000. Meanwhile, for four posts on Instagram mentioning a brand, an influencer -a person who creates content on social networks and has a relevant number of followers- with 1.3 million followers last February could bill $ 200,000 -outside the platform-.
Beyond the monetization scheme proposed by companies, each profile of a social network is a potential showcase where 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 monthly subscription tools and services in dollars), and cryptocurrencies.
The disinformation business is even more opaque. “There are hypotheses and little certainty, but clearly there is an economy - not too traditional - in disinformation. Sometimes it is more about an ideological battle, for a particular interest or manipulation, than strictly a business. There are also disinformation campaigns that are not directly monetized by the networks, with trolls and managers of influencers who play half-rare games, ”a specialist in digital marketing strategies who asked to keep his name in reserve explained to Chequeado.
"The fanatic audiences have shown that they are more intense and add a greater number of followers," he added. It is 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 grow in audience to later be able to indirectly monetize it. When they reach 50,000 followers, that's it, a brand or someone from politics can appear to continue monetizing. I positioned myself, built on it, and someone pays me. Those who play the limits end up developing audiences that monetize quickly ”.
The truth is that it is simple and inexpensive to produce a video with fake news and effective words, from a reading of trends, "keywords" and topics of interest on the networks. The next step is to upload it, and bet on it to reproduce and go viral. Verification of the content usually comes later, done by third parties, such as checkers, when the damage is done.
It is also complex to measure how much misinformation costs abroad. From the United States, Joshua Braun, Research Associate Professor of Journalism at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, notes: “While some of the monetization can occur within the social media sites themselves, the misinformation can often 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 run, it's hard to know exactly how much they're making. " And he relates: “Probably the most sophisticated estimates come from the Global Misinformation Index , a group of experts that investigates these issues. In July 2020, they released a report that analyzed the websites that had disinformation about COVID and the digital advertising tools they used. Then, they estimated the traffic figures and advertising rates with the publicly available data. They concluded that the top performing COVID disinformation sites had made about US $ 25 million during the first six months of 2020. It should be noted that that number was from English sites only. "
Control and conspiracy theories
Disinformation about COVID in social networks is reproduced on a global scale. In a context of high uncertainty, the main risk is that it may influence people's behaviors and discourage compliance with care and prevention measures to combat the pandemic.
Between June and September 2020, the organization First Draft relieved a sample of 1,200 vaccines postings on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook in Castilian, English and French, which generated more than 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 those based on RNA can modify DNA, or that they are part of population reduction or human engineering projects. The idea that concentrates 40% of conspiracy theories is that "vaccines will serve as tools to introduce microchips into people and develop massive population monitoring systems." And in the United Kingdom, an investigation by Moonshot - an organization that applies technology to mitigate damage to the Internet - in early April 2020 registered a peak of 600 daily hashtags on Instagram and Twitter that explicitly linked 5G technology with the pandemic .
Closer in time, the last February report from the European Science-Media Hub - which monitors disinformation about COVID-19 on social networks, websites and blogs - reached a similar conclusion about the central ideas of these messages: that Vaccines damage human fertility, modify human DNA, and cause new variants of the virus. It is also claimed that the use of chinstraps does not work, causes bacterial pneumonia and "damages all the organs of the body." PCR tests are said to be 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 allowed and what cannot be published. “Our goal is that the information disclosed 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 removed. We do not allow content that denies the existence of COVID-19, that promotes remedies that may be harmful to health and we follow the recommendations of the World Health Organization (WHO) and the health organizations of the different countries, "he said. a Checked Antoine Torres, Head of YouTube Argentina.
With 500 hours of audiovisual material that is uploaded to the platform per minute, the executive admits that it is "impossible to verify all the content by a human since it is published, so controlling disinformation is complex." As other Internet platforms do, the surveillance and supervision of content is carried out mainly with automated systems that are complemented by human reviewers. There is also the possibility that users themselves report content. Since February 2020 and until last December, YouTube reported, more than 800,000 videos related to "dangerous or misleading information about the coronavirus" have been removed.
The content policies on COVID include disinformation that contradicts the guidelines of the World Health Organization and local health authorities regarding the diagnosis, treatment, prevention and transmission of the disease. However, the truth is that the reproduction and viralization of content harmful to health tends to be much faster, and some of them even remain.
Other platforms advanced in a similar vein. Between March and October 2020, Facebook reported that it removed more than 12 million pieces of content on Facebook and Instagram for having misinformation about COVID-19 “that could generate a physical risk”, as well as “posts 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 it worked around the world 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 piece of content is classified as fake, "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."
In response to Chequeado's inquiry, which Facebook chose to respond in writing, the company stated: “Following the recommendations of leading health organizations, including the WHO, we are expanding the list of claims that we remove. Now, we will include statements that have already been denied about the coronavirus and vaccines ”. These statements include, but are not limited to, the following: “Vaccines are not effective in preventing disease; it is safer to contract the disease than to be vaccinated, and that vaccines are toxic, dangerous or cause autism ”.
The social image
The formal monetization programs proposed by the platforms operate under a system of policies, rules and conditions, which allows for more effective control over the quality of the content distributed within that framework.
For ten years, YouTube has had its Partner Program, through which it pays content creators based on different parameters and sources of income (mainly, by billing the advertising that is shown in their videos). To take part, the channels must have more than 1,000 subscribers and, at a minimum, their videos must accumulate 4,000 hours of reproduction in the last year. Once these requirements have been met, they can apply to enter the Program and go through a process of reviewing its contents by the platform, which finally decides if it meets the admission parameters.
“The objective is to share the income that YouTube generates, which mainly comes from the advertising that can be seen before or during the playback of the videos. Most of this income goes to the creator of the content on which the ad was shown, ”explained Torres. Outside of advertising and, less economically significant, there are other monetization options: sharing the income that comes from Premium subscription fees (from users who pay not to see advertising), monthly membership systems and tools to make donations to the channel. According to Torres, "more than half of what the advertiser pays for advertising goes to the content creator." And he adds: "In the last three years, creators were paid more than US $ 30,000 million in the world depending on the different sources of income." This is YouTube's internal data that is neither open nor published and therefore cannot be analyzed independently.
The amount YouTube pays its partner each month varies. The monetization of a specific content is determined by a set of factors: the countries from which the audience comes; the time each user spends watching a video; the number of views recorded by each video; the format and location of the ad; the time of year, and the number of advertisers who wish to advertise in front of each type of audience. "Obviously, the more reproductions of a video, the greater the chances that an ad will be shown," said Torres.
An indicator that content creators look at is the CPM (cost per thousand reproductions): the value that an advertiser pays for every 1,000 impressions on their advertising broadcast in a video that they monetize within the Program. This measure varies according to the performance of each channel and, to a large extent, determines what YouTube pays you. For a content developer - with whom Chequeado spoke and asked not to be identified - who has 1.1 million subscribers, last December his global CPM was US $ 4 for every 1,000 ad views on his videos. In February, its global CPM dropped to $ 2.88. This figure averages the value of the different markets where it has an audience: the United States (where its CPM is US $ 6.35), Spain ($ 3.19), Brazil (US $ 1.49) and Argentina (US $ 0.90 ), among others.
For another content creator -who did not agree to be presented- with 43,500 subscribers on his YouTube channel and 15,800 on Instagram, and whose audience is mainly in Argentina, Spain, Chile, Mexico and Uruguay, beyond the metrics it is key "Build a community around the information we produce." His presence in networks allowed him to have “popularity” and “leave the cities and reach the towns”. However, what he charges through the platform -about $ 10,000 per month last February-, serves him “to pay the expenses and some expenses”.
More difficult to measure is the monetization of content outside of the platform's official programs. Created in 2010, Lezica Films is presented on YouTube as a “channel with audiovisual content for the Expansion of Consciousness”. In a similar vein to what LTV1 does, from its account on the platform, it invites you to make donations in dollars to its PayPal account, visit its Instagram and Facebook accounts, and subscribe to its channel on the Lbry content platform. TV. After reporting "censorship" to his YouTube channel last year, in early February he began to migrate to LBRY his content "censored by the Establishment", such as interviews with doctors who recommend not following health policies against COVID-19 and videos that promote the consumption of chlorine dioxide and teach how to make it. For its 57,100 YouTube subscribers, it reserves some content: advertising for astrology courses, tarot sessions, astrological coaching and hydrogenated alkaline water, and videos on an assortment of themes: "quantum technology", "ancestral health", "biochemical individuality", " extraterrestrial contact via WhatsApp ”and“ Parraviccini's predictions ”.
The pandemic, however, appears to have favored Lezica Films' performance. According to Social Blade - which is based on public YouTube statistics - the channel enjoyed its greatest popularity during the quarantine: in June 2020 it gained 6,700 new subscribers, in August it added another 10,900 and in September it gained 5,200. Its number of subscribers, which in May 2020 totaled 26,700, did not stop growing.
To circumvent the policies for the use of social networks, which began to be much more active with the pandemic, those who produce disinformation are migrating their content to applications such as Telegram, SafeChat, Gab, Bitchute, Rumble, Odysee and Lbry.tv. But they maintain their presence on the broadest networks -YouTube, Facebook and Instagram- to promote the publications they disseminate on other sites, the means to receive payments and donations, or to partially host their content.
On the cover of its website, the TLV1 channel highlights a talk by the Argentine doctor "Chinda" Brandolino whose title is "After abortion, vaccines to kill children already born", promotes the sanctification of Blessed Ana Catalina de Emmerich and publishes the note “CDS (acronym for chlorine dioxide). Cure, scientifically proven ”. That channel also broadcast a talk by the Argentine doctor Luis Marcelo Martínez, whose statements have been denied by Chequeado , where he argued that "nanobots are being detected in the swabs" of the PCR tests and that "the objective is to reduce the population by mass sterilization ”. Brandolino's sayings have also been denied several times by Chequeado.
The medium maintains a tepid presence on YouTube, where today it has just eleven videos and promotes the digital systems where it accepts donations. Although it was more active on this social network until the end of 2020, last December it announced its conversion: "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 SocialBlade figures, the censorship complaint earned him more followers on YouTube, which grew from 1,960 in December to 9,930 today.
From the massiveness of Facebook, this web channel not only takes advantage of the repercussion of the event "Doctors against Deception", but also there it publishes in detail the means available to receive payments and collaborations: bank account number, cryptocurrencies (Bitcoin, Litecoin, Dash, Etherum), PayPal, MercadoPago, Patreon and a donation fee ranging from $ 250 to $ 2,000 (equivalent to $ 2.50 and $ 20, respectively). Recently, he added to the cover of his Facebook page the option "Become a collaborator", which allows you to donate $ 475.22 (equivalent to about US $ 5) per month with various credit cards through Facebook Pay. In return, the contributor will get a "special badge" that will be displayed alongside their comments on TLV1's posts and live videos, the site reports. But he clarifies: "You can delete it whenever you want."
The price of health
In Latin America -according to Comscore- the publications of influencers represented 16.3% of the total content on all types of topics. The network with the highest number of influencers is Instagram (it concentrates 37%), followed by Facebook (30%), YouTube (28%) and Twitter (5%).
Locally, Instagram does not offer users an official program to monetize content within its platform. To find out how this network works to generate business, Chequeado contacted the company, which limited itself to saying that "it has no options to monetize creators in Argentina."
However, both companies, businesses or individuals, can pay and advertise on that network -and also on Facebook- to obtain greater visibility of their posts. The initial investment is "economical, since it starts at $ 120 per day (US $ 1)," Alejandro Rajman, CEO of the digital marketing agency Zlatan Advertising, told Chequeado. Other platforms, such as Linkedin, "are more expensive and the advertising schedule starts at US $ 13," he compares.
In the absence of a formal program, users can use Instagram as an amplified digital window. As in other media, nothing prevents the mention of a product or a message from having a price and being billed outside the platform. “Today, for example, it is used to carry out product promotions through 'micro influencers'; users who have 10,000 followers on Instagram, or even less, with whom they exchange products in exchange for them to show them on the network, ”continues Rajman.
A slightly different strategy than the one LTV1 follows is personal marketing. With 41,100 followers on Instagram, the Argentine doctor Matelda Lisdero presents herself as a disseminator of the "5 Biological Laws" and her sayings have been denied by Chequeado. There, she promotes her courses on this subject -whose "introductory" seminar has a cost of $ 5,000 or US $ 50-, publishes a magazine that she translates herself and gave free talks by Zoom, aimed at teachers, under the slogan "¿Trabajás at a school? Classes start… are you scared? ”. In addition to frequently performing "live" from her Instagram account -where she expands on her approach to health-, the doctor shares videos and posts that deny the existence of the virus and the pandemic, mocks those who use chinstraps, questions the effectiveness of PCR testing discredits the transmission of the disease by aerosols and discourages vaccination, all against the available evidence. Also, he assures his audience that COVID "is not spread from person to person" because "everyone gets sick than they can from the perception of fear."
Perhaps to get the attention of his audience, Lisdero shares publications that reject public health policies with simplicity and little argumentation. Some of them: “a positive CRP (…) does not necessarily mean that you are infected or that you can infect, or that you are sick. It is pure speculation ”; the use of masks generates "fear", "submission" and "reinforces the dogma that we are in a pandemic"; "Contagions are a theory"; "Don't take a test"; "The vaccine is not going to help me"; "Studies of 95% effectiveness of vaccines is not true (sic)."
The "disseminator" enhances its positioning strategy with a presence on Telegram - where it has 1,300 subscribers - and a YouTube channel, created in April 2020, which has 3,570 subscribers.
From its Instagram account, Lezica Films strengthens its presence on other platforms: it invites its 14,200 followers to subscribe to its YouTube channel, Telegram and Lbry. In the latter, he says, "all the videos are censored by the Establishment" and he asks to join "in order to collaborate with the cause." His posts on Instagram include the promotion of hydrogenated alkaline water, vitamins A, B and C, Omega3, multi-carotenes, mineral mix, astrology workshops and quantum cards. With an abundance of conspiracy theories, its contents are extensive: interviews with Chinda Brandolino, a talk with the Argentine pediatrician Liliana Szabo on "the absurd school protocols", another note on "The vaccine created by The Dark Forces", and promotion of the consumption of CDS and inhaled ibuprofen. Several of his sayings have already been denied by Chequeado. Your message for the end of the year holidays? “Hug your loved ones, breathe fresh air… don't do the swab”.
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 the tools available to get their share of the digital business. Although it is difficult to estimate how much money they invoice or what is the value of their contents, the truth is that disinformation has also become a dangerous commodity.
This investigation is part of " Los disinformantes ", a series of investigations on different actors who have misinformed during the pandemic, which is being carried out by LatamChequea, the network of Latin American checkers coordinated by Chequeado, and has the editions of the participating organizations and the journalist Hugo Alconada Mon.