BuzzFeed's 'fake news guy' Craig Silverman on digital advertising's 'tons' of bad actors

Covering the most powerful media companies to the smartest startups, former Independent media editor Ian Burrell examines the fraught problem of how news is funded today. Follow Ian @iburrell.

Craig Silverman

While most reporters bristle at any association with “fake news”, Craig Silverman accepts that his name has become synonymous with the term – because the BuzzFeed journalist probably did more than anyone else in media to highlight the scourge of bogus online ‘stories’.

“It’s a blessing and a curse,” he says. “People sometimes refer to me as ‘Oh, the fake news guy’…I didn’t expect my life to end up that way!”

It was Silverman, media editor of BuzzFeed News, who uncovered a Macedonian network of more than 100 websites that pumped out political propaganda (mostly in support of Donald Trump) at the 2016 US election. He later exposed how false stories enjoyed more traction in the election campaign than material generated by traditional news outlets, and that readers believed them.

Recently Silverman has turned his focus on corruption in digital advertising. It’s a natural progression. The motivation for unemployed teenagers from the town of Veles, Macedonia, was not to elect Trump but to make money exploiting Google’s AdSense by concocting viral ‘stories’, such as a papal ban on voting for Hillary Clinton.

“I have spent most of my career being obsessed with things that are fake in the digital environment and the ways that environment is being manipulated and exploited and inundated with fakeness,” Silverman tells The Drum after addressing an audience in London on the theme “Media Trust in an Age of Cynicism”.

For years Toronto-based Silverman has been a thorn in the side of Facebook, exposing the platform’s fallibilities for allowing its users to be exploited by anyone from state-sponsored trolls to ad fraudsters.

Before Christmas, he exposed Ads Inc, a San Diego-headquartered digital advertising operation that persuaded thousands of Facebook users to “rent out” their accounts for $15-30 a month. The accounts were exploited by Ad Inc’s black hat marketing affiliates and operated by an army of workers in the Philippines and ‘stay-at-home’ mothers in America. It targeted Facebook users with ads for subscription products carrying fake endorsements from celebrities.

“This was a massive operation involving thousands of rented Facebook accounts to reach average folks all around the world, I found ads that were run in English, Spanish, French, German, Swedish…,” says Silverman. “These guys considered themselves a marketing agency and there are tons and tons of agencies out there who are absolutely engaged in nefarious kinds of things.”

Martin Lewis, the British consumer advice expert, successfully sued Facebook over a similar fake endorsement scam.

Ads Inc was closed down as a result of BuzzFeed’s investigation.

Silverman believes the ad industry needs to work harder to identify the corrupt elements in its midst. “These are really trust-destroying things that are taking place in the ecosystem and it’s something people working in the industry really need to think about as a problem that they need to have a role in helping solve.”

In another recent investigation, he exposed how a network of what appeared to be local news websites had been created in the US and Canada to rake in ad dollars while not originating any journalism but aggregating news and celebrity content from other sources.

“They got accepted into ad networks and just turned on the hose of fake traffic,” says Silverman. “Legitimate media that has been around for maybe 100 years or more and has real people producing real content and a real relationship with the audience, can be eclipsed in terms of revenue and certainly traffic numbers by somebody setting up a reasonably well-thought out digital advertising fraud scheme.”

It might seem odd for an open access website like BuzzFeed to be working so hard to expose the failings of digital advertising but the still youthful media brand has much to gain from positioning itself as a trusted guide to how this ecosystem is developing.

“It makes so much sense for us as a digitally-native brand to think about how we can be experts and do really revelatory work in exposing some of the problems and the ills of the internet, some of the trust-destroying things,” says Silverman. “We can pull back the curtain a little bit on what’s happening in the digital environment and help [readers] understand and navigate it better and serve them by doing reporting that hopefully is going to have results of removing bad actors from the information sphere.”

Such investigations also help overturn the lingering perception that BuzzFeed is a shallow entertainment outlet characterised by food recipes (its sub-brand Tasty is phenomenally successful) and its success with cat videos in the early years after it was founded in 2006. “You still get people who are surprised that BuzzFeed does deeply-reported news,” says Silverman.

This means that BuzzFeed News is “battling to build” credibility every day, he says. “We are a news team that has been built within an organisation that did not start as a news brand and wasn’t thinking about news when it first came out. We have got to really demonstrate our seriousness and demonstrate our credibility and show that we are worthy of people’s trust.”

At the start of the year, BuzzFeed chief executive and co-founder Jonah Peretti set out the company’s plan for 2020 in a blueprint that included a commitment for its journalists to show their working by publishing, wherever possible, the documents and evidence used in stories. Silverman says this is another part of BuzzFeed’s attempt to show its “true self” and win reader trust. “We will show our process, we will show our evidence. To me that is a very foundational approach to showing we are worthy of the trust of the audience,” he says. “It also shows the extent to which you have gone to produce this piece of work.”

The BuzzFeed newsroom suffered a blow last month with the announcement that its talismanic editor-in-chief, Ben Smith, is leaving to join the New York Times (where he will be a rival media writer to Silverman). The setback came a year after massive staff layoffs at BuzzFeed, which damaged its reputation as a visionary digital media company.

Silverman admits that Smith has been “the leader of the newsroom since day one” but says the operation “remains well resourced” and “this doesn’t change anything about the commitment to news”.

BuzzFeed’s UK operation, which includes a substantial team of journalists, will move into a new base near London Bridge later this year.

With the US election campaign heating up, Silverman believes Facebook will, once again, be the “primary battleground for election ads” with a repetition of the brutal campaigning on the platform four years ago. “Unfortunately, I think there are a lot of politicians whose lesson from 2016 is actually that you should just charge ahead and push the envelope as much as possible and not apologise and not back down,” he says. “That goes particularly for the Trump campaign. They are investing huge amounts of money in Facebook and they intend to continue to use that as a primary place for them to activate their supporters.”

He acknowledges that Facebook has moved to close some of the “loopholes and opportunities” that were exploited in 2016 by “financially-driven or ideologically-driven bad actors” and that the Macedonian fakers have largely “exited the political clickbait sphere”. But he says foreign state- sponsored interference will still happen because “the election for them is the really big opportunity…and there is the chance to have concrete influence”.

Where Silverman expects to see most activity is at the margin of fake news, where misleading stories have just enough truth to escape Facebook’s fact-checking partners. “Something that has a kernel of truth to it is in many cases far more effective than stuff that is 100% false.”

Similarly, he anticipates another surge in extremist opinion-based sites. “I do think we will see the hyper-partisan infrastructure on the right and on the left really energise, we may see them getting more funding,” he says. “Sometimes it’s a bit misleading but that’s the kind of stuff that Facebook is extremely hesitant to take any kind of action on because of what can be legitimate concerns around freedom of expression.”

He highlights the likelihood that WhatsApp and other private messaging platforms will be used more, by campaigns and bad actors alike, to push their messages.

Silverman didn’t set out to be the ‘fake news guy’. When he launched a blog called Regret The Error in 2004 it was because of his interest in the new impact of blogging and his instinct that the area of “accuracy and verification and corrections” in news was being insufficiently interrogated.

Then the social media revolution happened. Stories from unknown sources were going viral and Silverman was ahead of the game.

“That interest in the basics of verification and looking at how the information environment was changing so much has just led me on this strange and unexpected journey which has led to this scenario of Donald Trump suddenly referring to everything as ‘fake news’,” he says.

As Trump seeks re-election, we haven’t had the last of the term.

Ian Burrell's column, The News Business, is published on The Drum each Thursday. Follow Ian on Twitter @iburrell

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