Want to get away with posting fake news on Facebook? Just change your website domain.

January 30, 2019
Category: Fact-Checking

One of the most frequently debunked fake news publishers on Facebook is still getting past the platform’s fact-checking system — and it’s doing it by using the simplest of tricks.

In the fall, YourNewsWire, one of the most infamous misinformers on the internet, migrated its site and rebranded as News Punch.

Sinclair Treadway, who runs the site from Southern California with his husband Sean Adl-Tabatabai, told Bloomberg in November that the move to rebrand was a direct result of declining revenue due to Facebook’s fact-checking program. Once a fact-checking outlet like Snopes rates a link, image or video as false, its future reach decreases in the News Feed. (Disclosure: Being a signatory of the International Fact-Checking Network’s code of principles is a necessary condition for joining the project.)

YourNewsWire initially resorted to deleting debunked articles. Alternatively, it turned to changing headlines on debunked stories and requesting fact-checkers like (Poynter-owned) PolitiFact revoke their original flag.

Seemingly unsatisfied with these approaches, YourNewsWire decided to pull the plug on its website altogether and move everything to a new URL.

So far, it seems like its strategy is succeeding.

Just prior to the migration, Poynter found that YourNewsWire content was still getting a large reach on Facebook despite being debunked at least 80 times by Facebook’s fact-checking partners.

Of the 45 flagged stories that we identified at the time, 12 are still live on News Punch’s site with the same headline. Of those, none were flagged as false on Facebook as of publication.

That means that — even though fact-checkers like have already debunked these stories — users can share old YourNewsWire stories from News Punch links without receiving a warning that they’re false. The fake news site itself could even repost them and find a new audience.

And some of the stories have.

(Screenshots from News Punch and the Internet Archive)

According to CrowdTangle, last week one of News Punch’s popular Facebook pages shared the new URL of a previously debunked story about Bill Gates’ doctor claiming he didn’t vaccinate his children. That post had more than 600 engagements as of publication.

Others have been picked up by various hyperpartisan pages and users, but none have garnered the kind of viral reach that they once had, according to the audience metrics tool BuzzSumo. Before the site migration, a false News Punch story once amassed more than 740,000 engagements — in spite of debunks from fact-checkers.

Given the loophole in Facebook’s fact-checking system, it could be possible for News Punch to regain some of that engagement. And Snopes, which had debunked the most YourNewsWire stories in our July story, is not pleased.

“It would be an impossible task for us to update all of that information and ensure that it would be applied appropriately,” said Vinny Green, director of operations at Snopes. “It’s an incredible task to do that. Facebook has not, in my opinion, demonstrated that the fruits of that particular piece — maintenance of previous misinformation — are fruitful.

The tactic of changing domains to avoid detection by fact-checkers and Facebook’s machine-learning models is nothing new.

In March, BuzzFeed News reported that a variety of websites were switching domains to stay ahead of the platform’s algorithm changes and advertising blacklists — including pages run by former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin’s publishing partner. Maarten Schenk, who tracks misinformation for the debunking site Lead Stories, said fake news operations will still often change domains to game Facebook’s algorithm.

“I see it a lot. One Macedonian network launched a new site five or six times a month,” he said. “They were really feeling it, feeling the need to change — but those guys were extreme copy-pasters. Almost all their stories were copied from other sites.”

Fact-checkers have debunked this fake news site 80 times. It’s still publishing on Facebook.

A Facebook spokesperson told Poynter in an email that they’ve seen “domain cycling” become an increasingly common tactic among misinformers on the platform.

“We’re seeing this practice happen because there are certain actors whose Facebook distribution has been greatly reduced due to the demotions that these Pages and websites get from repeatedly sharing false news, so actors that are suffering from these ‘repeat offender’ demotions are looking to migrate their content to new channels,” the spokesperson said.

So what does that mean for false stories from old domains that fact-checkers flagged, but still live on new websites? Facebook said it rolled out a feature a couple of weeks ago that extends the platform’s repeat offender demotions to new sites operated by the same entity, which it expects will curb the amount of domain cycling.

“Our goal, then, has to be to make these new tactics less effective as they crop up (make them more expensive for bad actors, restrict distribution on Facebook for actors who use these tactics) and to constantly keep iterating,” the spokesperson said.

News Punch might no longer be able to switch domains to evade penalties for posting about misinformation. Still, to get around them, all they’d conceivably have to do is create fake Facebook accounts and new websites to manage additional Pages so that they further avoid detection.

If Facebook really wants to catch new fake news sites attempting to get around the company’s fact-checking safeguards, Schenk said it should monitor the unique advertising codes they use. He does that using his tool Trendolizer, which is basically like Tweetdeck for fake news.

“I’ve been putting alerts on those so I can see if a new site is discovered by a new site as having the same advertising code,” he said. “I figured out that YourNewsWire changed because I got an alert in Trendolizer by email. I think that’s something that Facebook could certainly do to keep track of bad actors.”