The Future

The tricky way Facebook spammers plagiarize and get away with it

How to steal an article, make it go viral, and keep it invisible from Google.

The Future

The tricky way Facebook spammers plagiarize and get away with it

How to steal an article, make it go viral, and keep it invisible from Google.
The Future

The tricky way Facebook spammers plagiarize and get away with it

How to steal an article, make it go viral, and keep it invisible from Google.

Spammers in Kosovo and Vietnam are plagiarizing articles by and for Native Americans, swapping in Cyrillic characters to avoid being detected and using the content to turn a profit, according to a new report.

By trading out letters for Cyrillic characters that look identical in most typefaces, the duplicate story can evade detection by the actual copyright holders while pulling in traffic from large Facebook communities. An article posted on Native All News, for instance, is a duplicate of one originally run on We Are the Mighty, a military news site — but with Cyrillic letters in place of vowels, meaning that a Google search for the subtly altered headline doesn’t pull up the original.

The phenomenon was spotted by Lead Stories, a site that evaluates internet hoaxes, and it builds on reporting by BuzzFeed’s Craig Silverman about how overseas spammers repurpose material from Native American publishers to develop and monetize large communities on Facebook. The pages have millions of fans, and post about hot-button issues like Standing Rock alongside clickbait, fake news and plagiarized articles, resulting in lucrative traffic. Though Native All News runs content aimed at Native American readers, archived domain registration information shows that the site was registered in Kosovo.

Spam groups input stolen articles using Cyrillic characters, visible in this title and in the sidebar.

Spam groups input stolen articles using Cyrillic characters, visible in this title and in the sidebar.

The way Facebook formats posts makes the Cyrillic characters indistinguishable from Latin ones.

The way Facebook formats posts makes the Cyrillic characters indistinguishable from Latin ones.

The story demonstrates the complex ways that enterprising hustlers can exploit the new information ecosystem. Some spread propaganda, like Russia’s efforts to interfere with the United States’ political system. Others do it for profit, like the fake Native Americans or the Macedonian teens — also first spotted by Silverman — who created viral content aimed at Trump voters to make money.

The bleak result here: the Vietnamese and Kosovan pages are outperforming those created by actual Native people. "This sea of fake Native Americans is drowning out the real voices," Silverman said this week, in comments prepared for the Knight Commission on Trust, Media and Democracy. “They are taking up space, attention, and revenue from actual Native Americans.”

Jon Christian is a contributing writer to the Outline.
Hey you! We want to know what you think about The Outline (and you can win some cool swag too). We know you love to answer questions, so take our 5 minute survey.