When Meta’s Mark Called to testify before Congress in 2018, Zuckerberg was asked by Senator Orin Hatch how Facebook made money. Zuckerberg’s answers has since become something of a meme: “Senator, we run ads.”
Between July 2018 and April 2022, Meta earned at least $30.3 million in ad revenue from networks it removed from its own platforms to participate in coordinated inauthentic behavior (CIB), data collected by WIRED shows. Margarita Franklin, chief of security communications at Meta, confirmed to WIRED that the company will not refund ad money if a network is shut down. Franklin clarified that some of the money came from advertisements that did not violate the company’s rules, but were published by the same public relations or marketing organizations that were later banned from participating in CIB operations.
A report from The Wall Street Journal estimates that Meta will be absorbed by the end of 2021 17 percent of the money in the global advertising market and made $114 billion from advertising. At least some of the money came from ads bought by networks that violated Meta’s policies and flagged and removed the company itself.
“The global ad industry is estimated to be worth about $400 billion to $700 billion,” said Claire Atkin, co-founder of the independent watchdog Check My Ads Institute. “That’s a big brush, but nobody knows how big the industry is. Nobody knows what’s going on in there.”
But Atkin says part of what makes information, including ads, legitimate on social media is the context in which they appear. “Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp, this entire network within our internet experience, is where we connect with our closest friends and family. This is a place on the internet where we share our most intimate emotions about what is happening in our lives,” says Atkin “It’s our trusted place for connection.”
For nearly four years, Meta has been issuing periodic reports identifying CIB networks of fake accounts and pages that aim to mislead users and, in many cases, spread propaganda or disinformation in ways designed to look organic and change public opinion. These networks can be run by governments, independent groups, or PR and marketing companies.
Last year, the company also began tackling what it called “coordinated social harm”, where networks used real accounts as part of their information activities. Nathaniel Gleicher, chief of security policy at Meta, announced the changes in a blog post, noting that “threat actors are deliberately blurring the lines between authentic and inauthentic activities, making enforcement in our industry more challenging.”
However, this change shows how specific the company’s criteria is for CIB, meaning that Meta may not have documented some networks that used different tactics. Information operations can sometimes use real accounts or be conducted on behalf of a political action committee or LLC, making it more difficult to categorize their behavior as “inauthentic.”
“A tactic that has been used more often, at least since 2016, is not bots, but real people who go out and post things,” said Sarah Kay Wiley, a researcher at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University. “The CIB reports from Facebook, they kind of get it, but it’s really hard to spot.”
Russia was responsible for most of the ads in networks that Meta identified as CIB and then removed. The United States, Ukraine and Mexico were most often targeted, although almost all campaigns targeting Mexico were linked to domestic actors. (Metas public revenue documents don’t share how much the company earns by country, just by region.)
More than $22 million of the $30.3 million was spent by just seven networks, the largest of which was a $9.5 million global campaign affiliated with the right-wing, anti-Chinese media group behind the Epoch Times†