Mark Zuckerberg's plan to help reduce the spread of misinformation on Facebook has set of a "widespread panic" among some owners of the biggest hyperpartisan conservative pages.
Cyrus Massoumi, the owner of Mr. Conservative, which has 2.2 million fans, told BuzzFeed News he and his fellow publishers find Zuckerberg's guidelines "terrifying" and "extremely wide open to interpretation."
"To someone who was reading between the lines to understand what he meant, it didn't really make any sense to a publisher," Massoumi said. "It was terrifying to read."
Massoumi spoke exclusively with BuzzFeed News with the blessing of a group of other major conservative page owners so he could raise their concerns with Zuckerberg's post, explain why some hyperpartisan pages on the right published false and misleading content, and to share their proposal for solving the problem. Their goal is to land an audience with senior executives at Facebook to talk more.
"Don't ban us — let’s work out a solution," he said.
As of now Massoumi said he and others wake up every morning worried that Facebook will censor conservative pages by indiscriminately banning posts — or kill their pages altogether — without offering any explanation or opportunity to appeal.
"Everybody is going to get burned down as it stands now," Massoumi said. "I could wake up tomorrow and not have a business."
Facebook and Google have already begun to crack down. One major conservative Facebook page was banned from using Facebook's advertising tools after publishing a false story about Denzel Washington supporting Donald Trump, according to Massoumi.
As reported by BuzzFeed News, Google has begun booting sites from AdSense (its lucrative ad network) that completely publish fake news. Some of the more than 100 Macedonian-owned sites that BuzzFeed News revealed were routinely publishing false and misleading pro-Trump content no longer run AdSense, and in some cases have been completely taken offline. One teenager running a site contacted this reporter to object that his site had been removed from AdSense. He said he was being punished even though his site did not publish false or misleading information. He also attached an invoice for 10,000 euros to make up for lost revenue as a result of the story.
Some small publishers who scored big viral hits with false stories are now removing them from their sites. Ending the Fed's false story about the pope endorsing Trump and its false story about Obama cutting money from the military to spend it on Syrian refuges are both no longer online. (Its Facebook page is still active as of this writing.)
But Massoumi says many of the above players are small fish compared to the pages and sites operated by him and a few others. He said he is speaking on behalf of conservative publishers who collectively have 20 million fans on Facebook.
Massoumi, 25, has been running conservative Facebook pages and groups since he was 18. Raised in a Muslim family, he lives near San Francisco and says his political views are "socially liberal, culturally conservative, fiscally libertarian." He said he's never voted, though he is a registered Republican.
"I spend 8 to 12 hours a day consuming media, and I don’t feel informed enough to vote," he said.
Massoumi acknowledged that during the election his and other big pages did publish some misleading and false information, though he said they removed the latter once they realized their mistake. He said they began to push the boundaries after new players, such as sites run from Macedonia or others such as Ending the Fed, entered the market, copied their approach, and then began reaping huge Facebook engagement by publishing false and misleading content.
"We strayed because of the competitive nature of the algorithm in the News Feed and we do need to be brought back," he says. "But the problem is I operate in an environment where sites like Ending the Fed and these unknowns are going to beat us unless we go from tilted to misleading."
Massoumi defines "tilted" news as "tilting the headline and the tone to conform to how a person sees an event but without distorting a fact pattern, so nothing would be untrue." To him it's simply a matter of giving conservatives their news from a conservative point of view, while optimizing for Facebook.
He said the current outrage over so-called fake news that spread during the election has blurred the lines between actual scams and more traditional partisan argumentation — that is, between accurate news that is tilted for a certain audience, misleading news, and fake news that is completely fabricated.
"Tilted is what a partisan user wants, and misleading is that gray area, which gave way to fake news," he said. "There is fake news and fake news is a problem."
He said false and misleading partisan stories always outperform accurate "tilted" news on Facebook.
"It's not a surprise that fake news stories on partisan Facebook pages have higher viral coefficient," he said. "They reach more people. Something that conforms to a person's worldview is going to reach a lot more people."
Combine that with the fact that he expects his small team of writers to come up with 8 to 12 strong-performing stories a day. Massoumi said it was inevitable that misleading or false stories would begin to slip through when writers saw how competitors were getting big hits with those stories.
Massoumi acknowledged the problem was worse on the conservative side during the election. But he also said Facebook does not treat liberal and conservative hyperpartisan pages equally.
Facebook's content review team has consistently banned posts or applied a temporary ban to conservatives pages over stories that were tilted but factually sound, according to Massoumi. He believes they're biased against conservative news, and said in his experience the content review team has also done a poor job of banning actual false stories.
"They are not going to have the political nuance in their viewpoint to differentiate between people posting clean content that is tilted and people posting fake content," he said. "To a Facebook censor, those are going to be the same thing."
In response to a request for comment, a Facebook spokesperson pointed to the company's Community Standards, which outline the standards for removing content.
A writer for two liberal hyperpartisan pages told BuzzFeed News she has never had a post of hers banned but is "slightly worried" about Facebook banning their pages outright.
"I have been doing this for a year, and never had a post banned, never a warning from Facebook of any kind," she said, adding that she fully vets her posts and uses reputable sources.
The writer, who agreed to speak on the condition that BuzzFeed News not reveal her name, said the pages on the right go beyond what she's comfortable publishing.
"Some of the conservative stories and headlines are absolutely insane," she said. "They simply imagine a headline that would do well, and then write a story around it. And people eat it up."
Massoumi said he and his fellow big conservative page owners want to cooperate with Facebook to "create an environment where the news is legitimate and there is way less fake news." They agree there are bad actors who need to be warned to clean up their act or face a permanent ban.
They propose Facebook offer a better process for contesting a ban, and that the company explain publicly why it bans posts or pages. That would enable page owners like Massoumi to clearly understand the rules of the road, and for everyone to be forced to meet the same standard, he said.
"The thing which needs to be done is there needs to be a fair process by which the most malicious offenders have some sort of option to contest [a post or page ban], but at the end of that process you can ban those offenders," Massoumi said. "And then let everyone know that you banned them and why you banned them in a public post. Facebook banned pages before and no one ever heard about it."
Even though he manages major pages and spends significantly on Facebook ads, he said he and others have no formal line of communication with company.
"We spend millions of dollars on advertising and we don't have a person to call and say, 'Hey can you check out [why this post was banned]?" he said. "It’s completely insane."
Massoumi also said an ongoing challenge is the fact that "humans want things that are tilted and clickbaity." So Facebook needs to work to prove it algorithm to stop rewarding false and misleading partisan content.
"Facebook needs to design an algorithm that shows people what they want to see while simultaneously playing dad," Massoumi said.
After Zuckerberg's post, Massoumi sent a message to his writers to make sure they're posting accurate, tilted content. But he says his competitors are still publishing misleading and fake information — and reaping the rewards from the News Feed algorithm.
"I’ve cleaned up my sites and seen traffic get hurt," he said. "I've seen others continue with misleading and fake content and the result of that is things that are misleading or fake go higher up [on Facebook]. In my perception, Facebook is going to burn down the forest and I’m part of it despite the fact that right now I'm operating at a maximum of goodwill."
Echoing what some other conservatives have said, Massoumi believes the fake-news controversy is being pushed by liberals who want to exact a toll for Donald Trump's election win.
"It should not be called fake news — it should be called 'Hillary lost who can we blame?'" he said. "Of course the great irony of this is that people love the idea that the election just had to do with conservative conspiracy theories. If Hillary hadn't lost you would have never heard about this."
Massoumi also said the mainstream media is aggressively pursuing the story as a way to force Facebook to eliminate new, agile competitors like him.
"Some people who are shitting on these new media outlets are losing business to them," he said. "I’ve seen a lot of stories from newspapers who are just being sore losers in the market. They are fanning the flames of Zuck because of their business interests. It's 'Let’s find the one fake story out of 1,000 and get them banned so we no longer have to compete for traffic.'"
Ultimately, Massoumi believes Facebook has given people like him the chance to change how partisan news is written and delivered.
"What Facebook has done is allowed for political news to be interesting," he said. "We don't want to just have the New York Times and Wall Street Journal as the liberal and conservative options."
Though he worries his multimillion-dollar business could be seriously damaged or completely crushed by Facebook at any moment, Massoumi is thankful the company continues to face scrutiny for how it handles conservative news and viewpoints.
Back in May, Facebook's Trending product was accused of suppressing conservative news, which led Zuckerberg to invite some conservative media leaders to meet with him and share concerns. Massoumi believes that stopped the company from responding to this new controversy with mass ban of hyperpartisan conservative pages.
"If that had not happened this situation would have been complete shitshow," he said. "They would have flipped a switch and said, 'You can have The Blaze and Breitbart and everyone else can fuck off.'"
Craig Silverman is Media Editor for BuzzFeed News and is based in Toronto.
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