Have you been following the official Facebook page of that reputable media outlet or rather one of its many lookalikes? Telling the difference is increasingly getting difficult as scammers have now extended their duplication game beyond just the brand name and symbols. But while some of these pages share publications from the original news platforms, there are those that post other contentsㅡincluding fake news.
Browsing through the social media platform, Facebook, HumAngle found 30 pages designed to pass off as one of nine news organisations: Al Jazeera, British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), Cable News Network (CNN), Vanguard News, Sahara Reporters, Television Continental (TVC), Channels TV, African Independent Television (AIT), and Nigerian Television Authority (NTA).
The problem is, however, not limited to Facebook. Other social media websites also play host to fake accounts purportedly belonging to one news organisation or the other.
In 2016, for example, Channels TV raised alarm over a Twitter account using its name and logo to share gossip and sensational news under the guise of “parody.” The account also cloned the original handle’s username, bio, and location. Though not verified, it had gained over 188,000 followers.
Very often, fake pages on Facebook are created with the intention of gathering followers through deception. These followers can then be converted to website traffic, customers, and ultimately money.
In Nigeria, it is common for pages to be publicly offered for sale, with their value largely depending on the number of followers. This is especially likely for pages that pass off as big brands but do not share unrelated content. This one that calls itself CNN National News, for instance, only shared four news excerpts in 2014, four in 2015, one in 2016, and then updated its profile picture last November.
But in their bid to reach wider audiences and maximise profits, the page administrators sometimes resort to sharing false information.
An example is this page, Vanguard NewsPaper Nigeria, which instead of featuring the address of Vanguard’s website puts up a blogspot address. It also shares links from a different blog. Two of the reports recently published had terribly misleading headlines, which contradicted the reports themselves: Breaking News: Attorney General to cancel US Election (See new development) and Finally Nigeria Govt bows to pressure from CNN, release the name of those who died in EndSARS protest.
Another example spotted by HumAngle was from a page called Sahara ReportersUpdates, also sharing links to websites unrelated to the prominent New York-based paper, Sahara Reporters. One of those reports, published in April, claimed that former President Olusegun Obasanjo was giving out N5,000 to every Nigerian with a Bank Verification Number (BVN) so long as they clicked a link and followed the steps. The scam report has been viewed nearly 7,000 times as of November 25.
Many of those who follow these pages are misled to think they are run by the major brands. This is made obvious by the comments often passed on their posts. “Please, help us beg the management of National Open University to kindly caution how they released bad results for us the students,” someone, for example, replied last year to a post shared by a page impersonating AIT.
As a fact-checker at the Agence France-Presse (AFP), Segun Olakoyenikan, has come across many of these impersonating accounts, which he says are especially common on Facebook. He explained that the motives of the creators vary, from spreading political propaganda to simply generating controversy. Sometimes, after growing the pages’ reach, they would change their names to suit their ultimate plans.
“The challenge we have now is that there is a trust gap. Media organisations across the country are working to ensure they bridge the gap but these guys are compounding the issue for journalists generally because their contents are mostly misleading or false,” Olakoyenikan added.
“When they do that and are fact-checked, and people see Facebook calling them out for posting misleading information, people will think it is coming from reputable media organisations.”
Team lead for FactCheckHub, Victoria Bamas, also suggests that the trend of impersonation can be potentially harmful to the affected media organisations if not handled urgently.
“People might believe contents from such pages and, if such contents turn out to be dubious or pushing an agenda, the people exposed to these messages will have a negative perception from the organisation,” she explained.
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