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How Disinformation Makes Money

An event with health professionals that was streamed live on Facebook on March 4th, at 11:00 AM, in Buenos Aires, Argentina, captured an audience of 1,200 people. One week later, the video had been seen 51,000 times and had been shared 6,300 times on the social platform. Two weeks later, one of its segments was tagged on Facebook with an alert warning the users that the information included in the video was false. The event, called “Doctors against Deception,” was convened by the organizations Argentine Epidemiologists and Doctors for the Truth, among others. Speakers criticized public health policies and care recommendations aimed to alleviate the pandemic scenario: face masks, tests, social distancing and vaccination.

Fake claims were made during the three hours of the event, which was broadcast on the Facebook page of TLV1 online channel and included words like “plandemic,” “hypothetical” “presumed” or “fabricated” virus, “highly dangerous” vaccines, “injections with genetically experimental material that are already causing great, or even fatal damage,” “injections with microchips and nanobots,” and “uncertain and low-specificity” PCR tests. At the end, advertisements were shown, and the director of the digital media outlet, Juan Manuel Soaje Pinto, asked for economic support while his bank account number at Banco Patagonia was displayed.

With 52,900 Facebook followers and a wide agenda that includes the sanctification of beatified people, nationalism, “vaccines that kill children” and the promotion of chlorine dioxide, a very common and dangerous disinformative claim, TLV1’s website is only one of the many actors that want to earn a living while spreading content on social media.

Besides being a space for relating, debate and entertainment, these platforms have an economic value that can be capitalized to sell products and services, adopt a position, build a personal brand or generate a large and loyal community of followers. However, they’re also useful to spread false information about the pandemic, which gains attention and provokes confusion and harm during a health crisis like the current one.

If online audiences and content are the basis of a market that includes users, brands, advertising agencies and online platforms, is it also possible to make money from COVID-19 disinformation? How can one reach an audience that’s willing to financially support the people that make those claims? Which tools are used to profit from the spread of conspiracy theories, false medical information or the open battle against policies and recommendations made by health authorities to tackle the pandemic?

“Disinformation is not specific to social media; it precedes it and exceeds it,” explained Eugenia Mitschelstein, professor and researcher of the Social Science Department of the Universidad de San Andrés. “What’s different? All users can share it; the phenomenon is amplified by the recirculation of content between more people and at a higher speed. Each one of us is a potential node for the repetition of false information.” She also added: “There is a democratization of the possibility to produce, spread and profit from false information, which is not necessarily a good thing. Allegedly, social platforms have controls to keep that from happening: they work with fact-checkers and use content moderation systems to identify, and not reward, websites that publish false information. They could even shut them down. But it’s impossible to assess the veracity of everything that’s published.”

The business

Argentina has 35 million Internet users, who, during the isolation and distancing measures adopted during the pandemic, increased their consumption of social media. According to Comscore, a consulting agency that measures and analyzes online audiences and markets, between January, 1st, and December, 20th, 2020, 6,5 million posts were consumed on social media, which had 2,700 interactions (likes, comments, views, downloads or shares that posts receive). The platform with the highest numbers of interactions in Argentina is Facebook (47% of the total); followed by Instagram (45%); Twitter (5.9%) and YouTube (2.1%).

There are several ways to monetize social media content. Generally, there are two main models.

The first one includes business models design by the platforms themselves, which perform within their framework and according to their content and monetization policies, usage rules, rates systems, ads formats and payment methods. For example, YouTube has its own Partner Program, through which they pay content creators that have ads served in the videos they produce for that platform. This encourages the development of original productions for the platform. Instagram doesn’t offer this incentive to users in Argentina; it profits from increasing the visibility of posts. People and companies can pay the platform so that their posts have a greater reach on target audience.

Secondly, and outside these models, users can use the visibility created by social media in their favor to develop influence and digital marketing strategies for their followers. The range is wide: they can promote their own products and services, or have investors pay them for promoting their brand or message (sometimes, transparently and explicitly; sometimes, not) or presenting a product.

There’s a grey area between both alternatives. It’s also a market that’s hard to estimate since rates depend on several variables. According to Social Blade – a website that estimates how much a content creator would get paid according to YouTube’s public statistics – an Argentine channel with almost 3 million followers and 242 million views can earn, in one year, between US$ 10,900 and US$ 174,000. A channel with 56,000 subscribers and 3.4 million views can earn between US$ 64 and US$ 1,000. Meanwhile, influencers – people that create content on social media and have an important number of followers – that have 1.3 million followers, up to last February, could earn $200.000 (around US$ 2,000) for four Instagram posts sponsoring a brand, and this is outside the platform.

However, beyond the monetization models proposed by companies, each social media profile is a potential showcase to display tools to get payments and donations, bank accounts, international or national payment platforms like MercadoPago or PayPal, subscriptions to Patreon (a membership platform to set monthly subscription tools and services in American dollars) and cryptocurrency.

Underground economy

The disinformation business is even more opaque. “There are hypothesis and not enough certainties, but it’s clear that there is a non-traditional economy in disinformation. Sometimes, it’s more an ideological battle based on a particular interest or manipulation than strictly a business. Besides, there are disinformation campaigns that aren’t directly monetized from social networks, with trolls and influencers managers that play strange games,” a specialist in digital marketing strategies that asked to remain anonymous said to Chequeado.

“Fanatical audiences have proved to be more intense and involve more followers,” he continued. This is the strategy used by many people that want to build a digital identity: to fight against something, place themselves on an extreme, develop a fan base and increase their audience to then profit from it indirectly. When they reach 50,000 followers, it’s done, any brand or politician can approach them to continue monetizing. I established a position, I built from it and someone is paying me. Those who play at the limits end up with audiences that monetize quickly.”

Illustrations: Alina Najlis and Santiago Quintero.

The truth is that it’s easy and cheap to produce a video with false news and effective words based on trends, “keywords,” and topics of interest on social media. The next steps are to upload it and hope that people will see it and that it’ll go viral. Content verification usually comes later and it’s done by third parties, like fact-checkers, after the damage is done.

It’s also difficult to estimate how much money disinformation makes internationally. In the United States, Joshua Braun, researcher and associate professor in the Journalism department at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, explains: “Even though some of the monetizations may occur within social media networks, disinformation is often uploaded in external websites promoted on social media. These sites usually earn money from digital advertisement, but since we don’t have access to their traffic numbers or their rates for publishing ads, it’s hard to know exactly how much they earn.” He also said: “It’s likely that the most sophisticated estimations come from the Global Disinformation Index (GDI), a group of experts that investigates these topics. In July 2020, GDI published a report that analyzed websites that had disinformation on COVID, and the digital advertising tools they were using. Then, they estimated traffic numbers and advertising rates with available public data. They reached the conclusion that the websites with disinformation on COVID that had performed better made around US$ 25 million during the first six months of 2020. This figure is specific to websites in English.”

Control and conspiracy theories

Disinformation about COVID on social media spreads on a global scale. In a context of high uncertainty, the main risk is that it can affect people’s behaviors and discourage compliance with care and prevention measures to combat the pandemic.

Between June and September of 2020, First Draft presented a sample with 1,200 posts related to vaccines on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook in Spanish, English and French, that generated over 13 million interactions. The study, which included Facebook sites in Spanish mostly managed from Latin American countries, identified the topic of the main messages: vaccines are inefficient, dangerous or even lethal; RNA vaccines can modify DNA or serve as tools for human engineering and depopulation programs. The idea conveyed in 40% of conspiracy theories is that “vaccines will become tools to insert microchips in people and develop massive population control systems.” In the United Kingdom, a report from April 2020 published by Moonshot, an organization that applies technology to mitigate online harms, registered a record of 600 daily hashtags on Instagram and Twitter that explicitly linked 5G technology with the pandemic.

More recently, the report from February 2021 of the European Science-Media Hub, which monitors disinformation on COVID-19 on social media, websites and blogs, reached a similar conclusion about the key ideas of these messages: vaccines are detrimental to human fertility, modify the human DNA and are responsible for new variants of the virus. It’s also claimed that face masks don’t work, that they are responsible for bacterial pneumonia and that they “injure every organ of the body.” The PCR tests are considered fraud and only used to prolong lockdowns. All these claims are false.

To control the spread of false information about the pandemic, social media networks began to change their content policies, which establish what’s allowed and what isn’t. “Our goal is to ensure that the information that’s spread is reliable. We established a series of guidelines and requirements that, when unfollowed, will have the video removed from the site. Sometimes, depending on the infraction, the whole channel can be removed. We do not allow content that denies the existence of COVID-19 and promotes drugs that can be harmful, and we follow the recommendations of the World Health Organization (WHO) and health organizations from different countries,” said to Chequeado Antonie Torres, Head of YouTube Argentina.

With 500 hours of audiovisual material uploaded to the platform per minute, Torres admits that “it’s impossible for humans to verify all the content published, so controlling disinformation is difficult.” Like other Internet platforms, monitoring and supervising content is mostly made by automatized systems and then complemented by human reviewers. Users can also report content. YouTube reported that, between February and December 2020, over 800,00 videos that contained “dangerous or misleading information about coronavirus” were deleted.

Content policies on COVID include disinformation that contradicts local health authorities or the WHO guidance on diagnosis, treatment, prevention and transmission of the disease. However, it’s true that the spread and viralization of harmful content is usually faster, and some posts remain uploaded.

Other platforms took similar measures. Between March and October 2020, Facebook reported that over 12 million pieces on Facebook and Instagram had been removed for including disinformation about COVID-19 “that could lead to physical harm,” as well as “posts with false claims regarding cures for COVID-19, treatments, the availability of local essential services and the severity of the outbreak.” Facebook said it worked all over the world with “more than 80 fact-checkers to qualify content as false or misleading – like conspiracy theories about the origin of the virus.” Among those fact-checkers is Chequeado, which is part of the Third Party Fact Checking program. Once the content piece is classified as “false,” “we reduce its distribution” and “apply warning labels with more context,” according to a Facebook report. Only in April 2020, “we put warning labels on about 50 million pieces of content on Facebook, based on around 7,500 articles by our fact-checking partners.”

When asked by Chequeado, Facebook chose to reply in written: “Following the recommendations of leader health organizations, including WHO, we are expanding the list of claims to remove. We will now include debunked claims about the coronavirus and vaccines.” Those claims include, among others, the following: “Vaccines are not effective to prevent diseases; it’s safer to get the disease than the vaccine; and vaccines are toxic, dangerous or cause autism.”

Social image

Formal monetization programs proposed by platforms work under a system of policies, rules and conditions, thus ensuring more effective control over the quality of the content distributed within that framework.

For ten years, YouTube’s Partner Program has been paying content creators according to different parameters and income sources, mostly revenue from ads displayed in their videos. To be eligible, channels should have more than 1,000 subscribers, and, as a minimum, 4,000 valid public watch hours in the last 12 months. Everyone that meets those requirements can apply for the Program and go through a content review process before YouTube decides whether the channel meets their policies and guidelines.

“The goal is to share the revenue generated by YouTube, which mainly comes from ads shown before or during the videos. Most of that income belongs to the creator of the content on which ads were displayed,” said Torres. Besides advertising, there are other monetization options, which are less economically significant: sharing revenue from Premium subscriptions (users that pay for Premium are not shown any ads), monthly membership businesses and tools to donate money to the channel. According to Torres, “more than half than what advertisers pay goes to the content creator.” He also explained the following: “In the last three years, creators have been paid over US$30,000 million worldwide, according to different income sources.” These are internal data from YouTube that are not open or published, and it’s therefore impossible to analyze them independently.

The amount paid by YouTube to each partner varies. Monetization of specific content is determined by different factors: countries where the audience is from, the time each user spends on a video, the number of reproductions registered for each video, the format and placement of the ad, the time of the year and the number of advertisers interested on each type of audience. “The more views a video has, the more likely it is for ads to be shown with it,” said Torres.

One indicator that content creators monitor is the Cost per 1,000 impressions (CPM): how much money advertisers are spending for 1,000 impressions of their ad shown in a video that monetizes within the Program. This measurement varies according to the performance of each channel, and, generally, determines what YouTube pays them. A content developer with over 1,1 million subscribers that spoke with Chequeado and asked to remain anonymous explained that, in December 2020, their global CPM was US$ 4 per 1,000 ads views in their videos. In February, their global CPM dropped down to US$ 2,88. These figures represent the average of all the markets where they have an audience: United States (US$ 6,35), Spain (US$3,19), Brazil (US$ 1,49) and Argentina (US$ 0,90), among others.

Another content creator that asked not to be named and that has 43,500 subscribers on their YouTube channel and 15,800 on Instagram, and whose audience is mainly located in Argentina, Spain, Chile, Mexico and Uruguay, claimed that, besides metrics, it’s crucial to “build a community around the information we produce.” Their social media presence gave them “popularity” and let them “reach small towns, as well as cities.” However, the revenue earned through the platform, around US$ 100 in February 2021, is only enough to “pay maintenance fees and some expenses.”

It’s even harder to estimate content monetization outside the platform’s official programs. Created in 2010, Lezica Films is presented on YouTube as a “channel with audiovisual content for the expansion of consciousness.” Similarly to TLV1, Lezica Films invites users from their YouTube channel to make donations to their PayPal account, visit their Instagram and Facebook profiles, and subscribe to their channel in Lbry.tv. After denouncing that their YouTube channel was censored in 2020, Lezica Films migrated the content “censored by the Establishment” to LBRY in February 2021, including interviews with doctors that recommend to dismiss health policies against COVID-19, and videos that promote the consumption of chlorine dioxide and even teach viewers how to make it. Some videos remain for their 57,100 YouTube subscribers, like astrology courses, tarot sessions, astrological coaching, hydrogenated alkaline water and videos that cover several topics: “Quantic technology,” “ancestral health,” “biochemical individuality,” “extraterrestrial contact via WhatsApp” and “Parraviccini’s predictions.”

However, the pandemic seemed to improve Lezica Films’ performance. According to Social Blade, which uses YouTube’s public data, the channel’s popularity reached record levels during quarantine: in June 2020, it earned 6,700 new subscribers; in August, another 10,900; in September, 5,200. The number of subscribers, which was 26,700 in May 2020, kept growing.

Alternative path

To elude usage policies in social media, which became way more active during the pandemic, those who produce disinformation are migrating their contents to apps like Telegram, SafeChat, Gab, Bitchute, Rumble, Odysee and Lbry.tv. However, they remain on the most popular networks like YouTube, Facebook and Instagram to broadcast some of their content and promote the posts they upload on other sites, and ask for payments and donations.

On the front page of their website, TLV1 highlights a talk given by Argentine doctor “Chinda” Brandolino with the title “After abortions, vaccines to kill newborns”; promotes the sanctification of Anne Catherine Emmerich, beatified in 2004; and published an article called “The CDS Cure, scientifically proven.” The same channel also promoted a talk given by Argentine doctor Luis Marcelo Martinez, whose claims have been debunked by Chequeado, where he assured that “nanobots have been found in swabs” used on PCR tests and that “the goal is to reduce the population through massive sterilization.” Brandolino’s claims have also been debunked by Chequeado.

TLV1 is not very popular on YouTube: it only has eleven videos, where it promotes digital platforms to receive donations. Although it was more active at the end of 2020, the channel announced its transformation in December: “Due to the censorship imposed by YouTube to TLV1, we decided to temporarily archived the programs of the last two years,” read a message on Lbry’s site. According to Social Blade, denouncing censorship brought them more subscribers on YouTube: from the 1,960 they had in December 2020, they now have 9,930.

Due to Facebook’s massiveness, this web channel not only benefits from the repercussion of the “Doctors against Deception” event; it also lists in detail all the means available to receive payments and collaborations, including its bank account number, cryptocurrency (Bitcoin, Litecoin, Dash, Ethereum), PayPal, MercadoPago, Patron and a range of donations that go from $250 to $ 2.000 (the equivalent of US$ 2,50 and US$ 20). It has recently incorporated to their Facebook cover page the option to “Become a collaborator”, which allows people to donate $475,22 (the equivalent of US$ 5,00) per month with different credit cards through Facebook Pay. In exchange, collaborators will receive “a special batch” that will be shown next to their comments on posts and live videos uploaded by TLV1. However, they clarify that: “You can delete your batch whenever you want.”

The cost of health

In Latin America, according to Comscore, influencers posts represented 16.3% of the total amount of content published regarding any type of topic. The network with the highest number of influencers is Instagram (37%), followed by Facebook (30%), YouTube (28%) and Twitter (5%).

In Argentina, Instagram doesn’t offer users an official program to monetize content within the platform. To learn how the network generates profit, Chequeado contacted Instagram representatives, who only confirmed that “there are no options to monetize creators in Argentina.”

Nonetheless, companies, businesses and individuals can pay and advertise on Instagram and Facebook to ensure that their posts have more visibility. The initial investment is “cheap because it starts from $120 (the equivalent of US$ 1),” said Alejandro Rajman, CEO of Zlatan Advertising, a digital marketing agency. Other platforms, like LinkedIn, “are more expensive: advertising starts at US$ 13.”

Due to the absence of an official program, users can use Instagram as an amplified digital showcase. As it happens in other media outlets, nothing prevents mentioning a product or message from having a price and being billed outside the platform. “Nowadays, for example, it’s used to promote products through micro-influencers, users with 10,000 followers or less, with whom they trade products in exchange for them showing them on the platform,” continued Rajman.

A different strategy than the one used by TLV1 is personal marketing. Argentine doctor Matelda Lisdero has 41,100 followers on Instagram. She presents herself as a disseminator of the “Five Biological Laws”, and her claims have been debunked by Chequeado. On Instagram, she promotes her courses about this topic – the introductory seminar costs $ 5.000 or US$ 50 – publicizes a magazine that she translates and gives free talks on Zoom aimed at teachers under the slogan “Do you work in a school? Classes are starting… Are you afraid?”. In addition to frequently doing live video feeds from her Instagram account, where she explains her approach to health, the doctor shares videos and posts that deny the existence of the virus and the pandemic, mocks those who wear face masks, questions the effectiveness of PCR tests, discredits the transmission of the disease through aerosols and discourages vaccination. All of this against all available evidence. She also assures her audience that COVID “is not transmitted from person to person” because “people get sick from what they can, based on their perception of fear.”

Maybe to get her audience’s attention, Lisdero shares posts that simply reject public health policies with a few arguments. Some of them are: “A positive PCR (…) doesn’t necessarily mean that you got the virus, that you can spread it or that you’re sick. That’s all speculation”; using face masks creates “fear,” “submission” and “reinforce the dogma that we’re in a pandemic”; “infections are a theory”; “don’t get tested”; “vaccines won’t help you”; “studies that prove that vaccines are 95% effective are false (sic).”

The “disseminator” magnifies her positioning strategy on Telegram, where she has 1,300 subscribers, and a YouTube channel created in April 2020, that has 3,570 subscribers.

From her Instagram account, Lezica Films strengthens their presence on other platforms and invites their 14,200 followers to subscribe to their YouTube, Telegram and Lbry channels. On Lbry, they say, “is everyone that has been censored by the Establishment” and they ask users to subscribe to “help the cause.” Their Instagram posts include promoting hydrogenated alkaline water, vitamins A, B and C, Omega3, multicarotenoids, several minerals, astrology workshops and quantic cards. With an abundance of conspiracy theories, their contents are extensive: interviews with Chinda Brandolino, a talk with the Argentina Pediatrician Liliana Szabo about “the absurd school protocols,” another article about “The vaccine created by Dark Forces,” and the promotion of CDS and inhaled ibuprofen. Several of their claims have been debunked by Chequeado. What’s their message for the holidays? “Hug your loved ones, breath fresh air… Don’t get swabbed.”

More than a year after the pandemic was declared, those who spread false information on social media have adapted their discourse to the changes in a scenario that was always dominated by uncertainty. They took advantage of available tools to get their share of the digital business. Although it’s hard to estimate how much money they earn or how much their content is worth, the truth is that disinformation has also become a dangerous commodity.

This research is part of “The Disinformants,” a series of investigations about different actors who have disinformed during the pandemic conducted by LatamChequea, the Latin American fact-checkers network coordinated by Chequeado that includes editions from participating organizations and journalist Hugo Alconada Mon.

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