Facebook is promoting paid-for hoaxes about Lord Sugar, Professor Stephen Hawking and the Queen to their users despite recent promises to crack down on fake news, a Press Association investigation has found.
The world’s biggest social network was found to be taking money from hoaxers who place the misleading adverts in the right column of News Feed, where it is less clear to users how to block or report them.
When made aware of the hoax adverts, a Facebook spokesman said the company works “constantly to reduce any type of misinformation”.
One such advert claims Apprentice star Lord Sugar was “out of control” and featured an apparently manipulated picture of the Amstrad founder with bruises on his face.
Facebook users who clicked the advert were taken to a page made to look like The Sun newspaper website, in which Lord Sugar is quoted as supporting a money-making scheme.
“The claims made in these advertisements are baseless and entirely false,” said Andrew Bloch, Lord Sugar’s spokesman, adding that the business magnate is aware of the adverts and is working on “legal remedies”.
The advertised scheme promises earnings of 50,000 dollars to 200,000 dollars (£39,950 to £159,900) per week and uses stock footage of a high-flying lifestyle and actors in its promotional material. It has been widely derided as a scam by internet users.
“Lord Sugar does not condone, endorse or use these services and has been intentionally misrepresented in an attempt to deceive the public,” the spokesman added.
The discovery of the adverts comes as the social network makes high-profile efforts to tackle misinformation on the platform.
Last week the network unveiled another new initiative in a “multi-pronged strategy” to tackle the issue – offering users advice for spotting hoaxes that appear in their newsfeeds.
Fred Stonehouse, a mature student at Portsmouth University, has seen the Lord Sugar advert appear on two separate occasions in the sponsored section of his Facebook newsfeed.
“The reason I noticed it is because Facebook’s tips for spotting false news were at the top of my feed,” he said.
“I didn’t actually click on it as it looked dodgy as hell. It’s clearly fake and you can tell by the web address that it’s not a normal site.”
Facebook has also engaged with news publishers in the US, Germany and France to alert users to content called into question by independent fact-checkers.
The site has relied heavily on reporting from users, and allows them to flag up stories they believe to be false by clicking a button on the post.
However, this functionality is not mirrored on the “sponsored” section of the site, where users have to hover over the post to be given the opportunity to remove them.
The issue of “fake news” has dogged Facebook in recent years and the 2016 US election, which spurred a cottage industry of hoax websites and articles, brought the issue of online misinformation to the world’s attention.
At the time, a Facebook spokesman reiterated the network’s promise to stop hoaxers promoting false information using the platform’s advertising network, which places adverts on external websites.
But anyone can pay Facebook through an automated system, select a target demographic from Facebook’s 1.9 billion users and promote any content they wish at a low cost.
Another hoax advertisement recently promoted in Facebook’s “sponsored” section claims “The Queen Has Died”.
The accompanying web address takes users to a page made to look like Facebook, and text which urges users to call a phone number or risk having their computer infected with a virus.
The phone number and page have been flagged as a scam in numerous online forums.
Robert Harvey shared a picture of the Queen hoax in a tweet calling the social network “hypocrites”.
“Yesterday #Facebook were on the @BBCNews talking about their efforts on fake news,” he wrote. “Today I had this in my sponsored links. Hypocrites.”
Thomas Barton, a retired associate professor of nursing from Swansea, said he has seen multiple versions of the celebrity death hoax advertisement, featuring Prof Stephen Hawking and the actor Hugh Laurie (pictured).
He told the Press Association: “Facebook is such a lot of fun and it’s such a nice social media tool. But every time, there you are, you’ve got all these pictures of famous people who have allegedly died who patently haven’t.
“I just think, surely, if they can manage to remove pictures of breast-feeding women, can’t they get rid of these?”
He added: “I guess the reason that they don’t get rid of them is that they are a money-making means for them, but that doesn’t make it right.”
Responding to the Press Association, Facebook said it has now removed the adverts and disabled the accounts of the uploaders.
As well as the “fake news” tips displayed to the site’s users, Facebook has launched The News Integrity Initiative, a 14 million dollar (£11.2 million) fund “to advance news literacy, to increase trust in journalism around the world and to better inform the public conversation” in a “global consortium” of organisations directed by the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism.
Professor Jeff Jarvis, Director of Tow-Knight Centre for Entrepreneurial Journalism at CUNY, told the Press Association the spam adverts are “just the beginning”.
He said: “The problem is that the spammers and the fraudsters are always a step ahead, and clearly this is a problem.
“All the attention lately has been on the fake news that gets circulated for free, but there’s also the problem of that which is paid.”
The number of advertisers still paying the network to promote misleading and deceptive pictures, links and stories has cast doubt among some Facebook users about the company’s efforts to tackle the full scale of the problem.
“People want to see accurate, authentic information on Facebook, and we want that too,” a spokesman for Facebook told the Press Association.
“Misinformation and hoaxes of any kind harm our community. We take immediate action when we discover advertisers attempting to serve misleading links to people.
“In these cases, the advertisers maliciously circumvented our advertising review process. In subsequent reviews we identified the advertisers and disabled their ads and account.
“We work constantly to reduce any type of misinformation on the platform and will continue to improve our systems.”