When the Meta tag Zuckerberg was subpoenaed to testify before Congress in 2018, and Senator Orrin Hatch asked him how Facebook made money. Zuckerberg’s answer later turned into a meme: “Senator, we run ads.”
Data compiled by WIRED shows that between July 2018 and April 2022, Meta earned at least $30.3 million in ad revenue from networks it removed from its platform for engaging in coordinated inauthentic behavior (CIB). Meta’s head of secure communications, Margarita Franklin, confirmed to Wired that the company won’t refund ad dollars if the network is shut down.
a report from Wall Street Journal By the end of 2021, Meta is estimated to have absorbed 17% of the global advertising market and made $114 billion from advertising. At least a portion of the money came from online-purchased ads that violated Meta’s policies, and the company itself has flagged and removed those ads.
“The size of the global advertising industry is estimated to be around $400 billion to $700 billion,” said Claire Atkin, co-founder of the Check My Ads Institute, an independent watchdog. “That’s a big brush, but no one knows how big the industry is. No one knows what’s going on in there.”
But Atkin said part of what makes messages, including ads, feel legitimate on social media is the context in which they appear. “Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp, the entire web in our internet experience, is the place where we connect with our closest friends and family. It’s a place on the internet where we share our most intimate thoughts about what’s going on in our lives emotion,” Atkin said. “It’s our trusted connection location.”
For nearly four years, Meta has published regular reports identifying CIB’s network of fake accounts and pages designed to deceive users and, in many cases, promote propaganda or disinformation in ways designed to appear organic and change public opinion. These networks can be run by governments, independent groups or public relations and marketing companies.
Last year, the company also began tackling what it called “coordinated social harm,” where networks use real accounts as part of their information operations. Nathaniel Gleicher, head of security policy at Meta, announced the changes in a blog post, noting that “threat actors deliberately blur the lines between authentic and inauthentic activity, making enforcement more challenging across the industry.”
However, the change shows how specific the company’s standards for CIB are, meaning that some networks that use other strategies may not have been documented by Meta at all. Information operations can sometimes use real accounts, or run on behalf of political action committees or LLCs, making it harder to classify their actions as “untrue.”
“Since at least 2016, the one tactic that has been used more frequently is not the bots, but the people who actually publish the content,” said Sarah Kay Wiley, a researcher at Columbia University’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism. “The CIB report from Facebook, they kind of get it, but it’s really hard to spot.”
Of the networks that Meta identified as CIBs and subsequently removed them, Russia had the most ads. The United States, Ukraine, and Mexico were the most frequently targeted, although nearly all campaigns against Mexico were linked to domestic actors. (Meta’s public earnings filing doesn’t break down the company’s revenue by country, only by region.)
Of that $30.3 million, more than $22 million was spent by just seven networks, the largest of which was a $9.5 million global campaign linked to the right-wing anti-China media group behind The Epoch Times.