How Disinformation Spreads: Off-Facebook Activity Case Study

A few of my friends shared the same meme with me on Facebook yesterday, and as disinformation is one if my pet peeves, and I have a little authority on the post itself (10 years security, 2 years @ Facebook as Software Engineer)

The Meme that decided what I was going to do with my Saturday Morning For me

First, the facts aren’t correct, so I debunked them in a separate post. So that I could focus this post on something much more interesting (at least to me). But the composition and delivery of the image itself sparked my curiosity, I love how information spreads through social networks, in a way that almost seems mechanical. There is tons of research on the concept, but being stuck in quarantine and kinda bored, I decided to dig in. 8 hours of research later I haven’t yet hit the bottom of this twisted maze.

Actual Red String Photo at the bottom of article. No seriously.

The Anatomy of a Meme

The reason this image caught my eye was that there is so much going on here, layer upon layer of twists and turns.

Anatomy of Disinformation

Starting with #5, this is a text message (Looks similar to the font used in facebook posts), that was copied off a facebook post and then pasted onto another image, this image (#4) seems to be the top part of a screenshot of a private browser tab looking at their own “Mobile Uploads” Photo Album using the (rather old version) Facebook Mobile site (not the app), and specifically the settings for (Which are unrelated to the new privacy feature?? but okay) — This hybrid image, was then captioned using paint or one of those meme caption tools (#2) and that whole image was then pasted onto a Gradient Background (#1) and rotated slightly (#3).

And so, full of curiosity and optimism, I set out to find the headwaters to this mangled river of crazy.

The Tools

First time I’ve done a big reverse tracking like this one the web, so I figured I’d detail some of the things I learned in my search, if you just want to see the answers I found, scroll down to “A Tangled Web”

Google — A good resource for tracking text, but unfortunately doesn’t search “into” images. Nor will it get into private facebook posts (or all public facebook posts for that matter, as google only indexes public facebook posts that have been linked to from some external site or page).

Tips:

  • Often misinformation gets pulled by the original poster after they get told off by their friends, so google will return dead links. Click the little arrow after the link and select “cached” to see the original if it still exists.
  • Settings -> Advanced Search gives you the ability to limit by date range
  • Encapsulate specific phrases in quotes “” (important for quality results)

ImgOps — There are a number of reverse image search tools online, Google Image Search, Bing, TinEye, Yandex… ImgOps crawls them all. This is a reverse image search, so you upload a copy of the image you have and then it tries to find similar images online.

Tips:

  • Google Image Search, TinEye and Yandex are the best of the bunch, some of the other ones are China centric, and return odd or results (unless it started there)
  • Google Image Search, TinEye and others only seem to return matches if they are exact, the similar results (especially for screen shots and text) don’t seem to have any understanding of content (text) so there are tons of garbage results. Yandex, has a functionality to find similar images to a specific portion of the parent image, which is really useful if a part of your graphic is somewhat unique on the web.

Facebook Search — Honestly, gave this a last try because I didn’t think it would work well, but was really suprised. Searches are text (not reverse image) based but it seems Facebook uses OCR (Optical Character Recognition) on all publicly shared images, and makes them searchable.

Tips:

  • Switch to the photos tab to find photos, from there, filter by month or day to narrow results. Opening the uglier screenshot images sometimes reveals a private source, or a public source that wasn’t indexed for whatever reason

A Tangled Web

I’ll admit that when I first started searching I thought I’d get to a bad actor of some sort, but the truth is much stranger. Basically the final image turns out to a dogpile of “Copy Pasta”, I have found a few pivotal share points where the meme “evolved” adding another layer as a network influencer (someone who gets lots of reshares modified or posted a modified version of the meme. As many of the links got deleted I wasn’t actually able to come to the “Head Waters” persay, but I was able to follow it around for around a month prior to the result in my feed. I’m going to follow the timeline as best I can to untangle this ball of yarn, and try to focus on the “influencers”.

April 15th, Facebook — Ugh this is so annoying. — 1.8k Shares

Plain text, shared as an image

A “Badass Boss Mom” from Yonkers posted the oldest version of the meme that I was able to find, I know it’s not the original because you can see evidence of image resampling (the blur around characters and copy pasted image indicates a reshare, but this is the oldest version of the image I could find). Sadly, I could find no version of this text online anywhere that was not in image form. Someone else transcribed the text for Reddit at some point, but as this was a FB centric meme, it didn’t gain much traction there.

April 16th, Facebook — 🤷‍♀️💯 — 3.8k Shares

With Facebook’s latest update, they now have a feature where they can track ALL “Off Facebook Activity”. I went to my Facebook settings to see and they had access to my bank app, my email, and anything I had searched on Google. I don’t feel like they should have access to what I’m doing outside of Facebook! 🤷‍♀️💯

To turn this feature off go to your Facebook settings > Scroll down to “Off Facebook Activity” > then click “Clear History” (you will see here everything they were tracking). Next click “Manage Your Off Facebook Activity” and turn off future activity.

Shortly after Yonkers, a woman and influencer in Casper, WY picked up the info from somewhere and transcribed it / original post. This text was acompanied by some helpful images that are seen in many other posts. When asked, she also claimed this as an “Original Post”, My version of the meme didn’t actually come from this transcription, but many of the re-shared versions I saw had screenshots with the telltale emojis. I’m including it to show scope. I’m tracking just ONE thread of this meme’s travel through the internet, at each branch, the tree grows broader and the meme evolves in different directions.

April 21st, Facebook — Screenshotted — 100 Shares

You should charge your battery

So what has happened now in the meme from the original image was screenshot of someone’s feed (see the line at the bottom) and cropped and then someone uploaded it to their facebok, and from a private browser tab from the facebook mobile browser (At 5:21) took a screenshot of their whole phone. You can see “fuzzing” in this image indicating that the gentleman (back in NY again) was not the first person to post the screenshot (He said as much), but this was the earliest posting of this version of the image I could find. Interesting, this mangled image gained a crazy amount of traction and is the seed of many of the variants out there, this image is also the image that eventually crossed out of facebook and into Imgur (115k views), and from there sites like iFunny

April 21st — Facebook — Crazy, but I checked and it’s legit

Crazy Right?

Okay, at some point, someone took our screenshotted image above, and thought it lacked pizzaz, so they threw it into some tool for adding a heading added added their own thoughts to the meme chain “Crazy but I checked and it’s legit”, again, lots of fuzzing in this image indicates it’s been reshared a few times, but the link and date above was the first I could dig up. Interesting here is a variant with “I had no idea..” that cropped the browser bar was spread around a bit, but didn’t gain as much traction as the “Crazy” variant with more garbage. If there is someone trying to make this happen (and damage Facebook somehow) this is the step that makes me the most suspicious. But more likely it made it into a social service that thrives on adding this kind of text for extra upvotes.

30 April, Facebook — Tell you a Story

Pull the string, this is my stop

So at some point, someone shares the poor mangled meme to their story (gradient background), and someone else then screen shots and crops the image again and re-shares it into the form that finally ended up on my news feed on 5/9. Again, fuzzed and I couldn’t track down the “origin” of this particular copy. This variant also leaped to Twitter a couple of times but hasn’t yet gotten traction.

This is my stop, I’m getting off

What I thought might have been a carefully crafted image to get around Facebook’s own disinformation filtering algorithms, was instead a dogpile of user-error, lack of understanding of sharing features, and an odd human tendency to believe something that looks like it’s been shared more times. Unfortunately any dead end I came to could have lead to a government or corporate agency, it also just as easily lead to a private facebook post that someone had to screenshot in order to share anyway. If you are also bored or otherwise feel it’s worth digging and find out more about this or similar memes do let me know and I’ll update, and bring out another ball of red yarn.

And this is only one thread

So…… the origin of the Screenshot of the Story of the Caption of a Screenshot of a Private Browser of a Mobile Facebook Upload of a Screenshot of a Post of an Image of a Text of a Incorrectly interpreted Fact of a Facebook Privacy Feature may never actually be found…

But the meme will share all around all around, yes the meme will share all around.

(Oh, and I found a version that adds a caption to my screenshot that posted after I found it) May 9 at 5:34 PM — So it has no beginning, and I haven’t even found the end. I’m done with the internet for today.

Kevin Lohman, Software Engineer, Father, Story Teller, and former US Navy Sailor (who never set foot on a ship)

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