A few days ago, content from a new JK Rowling Facebook page began appearing in the News Feeds of people around the world, causing a wave of confusion. Though it had more than 1 million fans, users swore they’d never liked the page.
“There’s something sketchy about this whole page. It was created yesterday, and I definitely never ‘liked’ it or followed it, yet it shows that I did. Wtf?” wrote one person.
They were even more puzzled when the page uploaded a profile picture of former disney actress Bella Thorne rather than the author of the Harry Potter books. “PLOT TWIST: JK Rowling was Bella Thorne all along!” said one commenter.
But the page doesn’t belong to Bella Thorne, or JK Rowling. Instead, it’s the work of a spammer who essentially hijacked a Facebook page to harvest advertising dollars.
The fake JK Rowling page sprung to life on April 29, complete with more than 1 million fans, thanks to a deviously clever technique used by spammers to steal unclaimed Facebook interest pages and use them to make money. At one point, a reporter from BuzzFeed News was shown a video ad for a major Canadian bank, RBC, on a stolen interest page for actor and entrepreneur Jessica Alba.
Interest pages are auto-generated by Facebook from interests users list in their profiles. They typically have no formal connection to the person or thing they’re about, and don’t have humans managing them. But even though no one is actively managing them, popular interests can still attract millions of fans.
In total, BuzzFeed News found more than 100 stolen pages for celebrities, books, films, religions, and generic interests such as “love” that were taken over using this technique. These pages have more than 55 millions likes. As of this writing 21 of the pages have been removed by Facebook.
The existence of this scam, and its ability to steal pages with millions of fans without being detected by Facebook for weeks, shows how the world’s biggest social network continues to be exploited by bad actors. In this case, they were able to steal pages that had been auto-generated by Facebook itself without the company realizing it.
“We’ve identified a bug and are investigating this issue. When we find activity that violates our policies we will take immediate action,” a Facebook spokesperson told BuzzFeed News.
Here’s how it appears to work: a would-be page thief creates a new page named JK Rowling. They then search Facebook to find the existing Facebook interest page in her name. These interest pages are automatically created by Facebook when people list a person, film, show, place etc. as an interest in their profile, and an official page for that same entity did not already exist. Once the scammer finds an “unofficial” JK Rowling page with lots of likes, they submit a request to Facebook to “claim” the page. It appears scammers were able to claim these interest pages even when real, verified pages for the same celebrity or topic exists.
Facebook grants these dubious page claim requests and then allows spammers to merge their new pages (which have few or no likes) with the massive pages created by the platform itself. The company didn’t comment on why these pages were able to be claimed other than to say it involves a “bug.” An online guide from Facebook says that when seeking to claim a page “you may be asked for information to verify your relationship with the business.” It’s not clear what, if any, information the spammers were asked to produce for the claimed pages.
The new owners of stolen interest pages can then use them to reshare content to generate additional engagement, or promote links to sites in order to drive traffic and earn ad revenue.
Active stolen pages as of this writing include one for “love” with more than 6 million fans, a Johnny Depp fan page with over 4 million fans, a page for film “The Hangover: Part II” with 1.4 million fans, a page for “Christianity” with close to half a million fans, and one for The New York Times with more than 30,000 fans. There are pages for notable historical figures such as Prophet Muhammad and Mozart, many pages for languages, including Spanish, Korean, Hindi, and even American English, and some basic ideas or concepts such as Walking, Fighting, and Money.
The page for “Islam,” which has more than 2 million likes, was stolen and then quickly infested with anti-Muslim comments, including one that alleged President Barack Obama is Muslim and is leading the “infiltration” of America by jihadists.
The Johnny Depp page shared links to hotelsreviews24.com, a junk news website registered in Gujarat, India in December 2018, as well as lajmeakt.info a site registered in Turkey on March 22nd, 2019, just a few weeks before the stolen pages began to appear.
They also earn money directly from Facebook, which helps place video ads for some pages. BuzzFeed News spotted video ads from a major Canadian bank and a milk brand on a stolen Jessica Alba page. The dairy ad appeared during a seven-minute excerpt of Hollywood film “The Mummy” that was scraped from a TV channel and then uploaded and reshared to the stolen Alba page — at which point the company’s ad tools helped the spammer earn money from video ads. (Facebook did not comment on why or how the ads were shown in this instance.)
The “Mummy” video was originally uploaded to a page called Cats Planet, which has 202,000 followers and contains other content that has been reshared by multiple stolen interest pages such as those for “The Hangover: Part II, ”Jessica Alba,” and “Quentin Tarantino.”
In another example, a Facebook page called “Gospel Music,” which has a cover image that includes the branding of Universal Music, contains content that has been reshared by many stolen interest pages, including ones for “Marley & Me” and “The Da Vinci Code.”
Both the cat page (which did not share any cat content) and the gospel music page (which didn’t share anything related to gospel music) were managed by people in Pakistan, according to page transparency details shown by Facebook. BuzzFeed News found at least seven other spammy pages whose content was reshared to stolen pages.
BuzzFeed News messaged several of these pages but did not receive a reply.
While they wait for Facebook to remove the stolen pages, some users have taken it upon themselves to warn others by leaving negative reviews and cautionary comments. A page for comedian Daniel Tosh has been showered with one star reviews from people angry about seeing its spammy, copyright infringing videos all over their News Feed.
“Who is Daniel Tosh and why is he vomiting all over my Facebook feed?” wrote one person.
“This page ruins my newsfeed. I wouldn’t recommend to anyone. Whoever is running this page eats paint chips to excess and it can’t be healthy for their brain,” said another.
One woman in Serbia who discovered the stolen JK Rowling page in her feed told BuzzFeed News that some people have begun unliking the page since she and others left negative comments.
“I noticed that about 4,000 people disliked the page from yesterday to now, actually from the moment they started posting,” she said in a Facebook message.