May 26, 2020

How an anonymous Spanish alternative blog, which spreads disinformation and polarizing content, has been using the Amazon Associates program to fund its activities.

by Raquel Miguel, Antoine Grégoire

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La Verdadera Izquierda, meaning the True Left, started as a Twitter account (@VerdaderaIzqda) in 2011 [1] and was followed by the creation of a blog the very same year. As stated by its Twitter Account, La Verdadera Izquierda was set up with the goal of “unmasking the lies of the left and socialism in this great country called Spain”. A few years later in October 2017, a Facebook page was created to promote the same content. At present, it has 4,276 followers.

This network attracted our attention because it followed many patterns we previously saw in other disinformation cases, namely:

  • The dissemination of fake, biased and polarizing content
  • The opacity and lack of transparency about both the creator(s) and person(s) who manage the website and social media accounts
  • The use of content syndication, replicating articles, or copy-pasting content already debunked by Spanish fact-checkers. This makes La Verdadera Izquierda an important contributor to the amplification of some disinformation.

During our investigation, we also suspected that the regular sharing of Amazon URLs by La Verdadera Izquierda’s social media accounts was a way to profit from the content published on the blog.

To grasp the blog’s impact, we looked at La Verdadera Izquierda’s most-read articles from 2015, 2016, and 2017. The most read article,  which criticised “Podemos’ election proposal of a universal basic income (600 euros) in 2015 as a way to encourage illegal immigration”, generated more than 300,000 interactions on Facebook, according to CrowdTangle. According to Similarweb, La Verdadera Izquierda received 6,110 visits from December 2019 to February 2020.

During our investigation, we identified a network of Facebook pages and Twitter accounts that regularly published the exact same content. The content consisted of links to La Verdadera Izquierda’s blog or Amazon’s marketplace. This behaviour encouraged us to dig deeper into the interactions between the Twitter accounts (“retweets”) and the Facebook pages (“Pages liked by this page”). We uncovered multiple signs suggesting that all these social media accounts and pages were most likely connected. The connections were confirmed by the significance of the massive shares of Amazon URLs by all the Twitter accounts and Facebook pages, which – as we will see later – was to the financial benefit of a few (or possibly one individual).

From this network of Facebook pages and Twitter accounts, we were also able to find a YouTube Channel, another Facebook page, a blog, and a Twitter account belonging to an individual known as “Sergarlo”.

To sum up, we were able to tie all the accounts together because:

  • They frequently retweeted or interacted with one another;
  • They copy-pasted the same posts promoting La Verdadera Izquierda’s new articles;
  • They shared a massive amount of Amazon URLs, which led us to suspect a possible monetization.

By looking deeper into the Amazon URLs shared by all these accounts, we discovered they were all part of the Amazon Associates program. This program rewards its members (Associates) for promoting Amazon URLs that contain special tracking IDs. A tracking ID is linked to the Associate’s account, so if the URL leads to a sale, the Associate will receive a percentage of that transaction. We found that all the Amazon URLs displayed by the Twitter accounts and Facebook pages part of the La Verdadera Izquierda network were always connected to the same six tracking IDs. Eventually, we could attribute these six IDs to La Verdadera Izquierda’s main contributor (“Sergarlo”) or others close to him.

In addition, on La Verdadera Izquierda’s website, readers are openly encouraged to support the blog by buying products through the Amazon Associates program: “ A good way to support us is to buy through our Amazon Associates link (…) All benefits will be directed towards patriotic causes”.

This example of the monetisation of disinformation is similar to what we found in other cases, especially the Suavelos case, and the Africa24 case:

  • Using disinformation as clickbait to attract users to monetised links;
  • The monetization of alternative news narrative and the inclusion of calls to action, asking for financial support for these narratives. [2]

Here, however, the Amazon Associates program played a key role by furnishing a constant flow of monetised links usable by a disinformation actor(s). This underlines the need for actors fighting disinformation to develop a better understanding of the techniques used to fund disinformation and seek out solutions to prevent lies from continuing to be a “profitable business”.

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(1) La Verdadera Izquierda’s original Twitter account was suspended.

(2) The “alternative news narrative“ is built on a core idea which consists of promoting, in particular, the “information” given by “alternative websites” as “real news” in opposition to the “fake news” produced by “mainstream media”. Because the Mainstream media are associated with big money, users are led to believe they are helping to finance the struggle of the small versus the big.