Why Plagiarism Thrives on Facebook

Back in August, Facebook released its “Widely Viewed Content Report” that attempted to showcase the type of content that was popular on the service. It included a list of the 20 most viewed posts during the second quarter of 2021, each of which received between 43.6 million and 85 million views.

The goal of the report was to both highlight the most popular content on Facebook and to deflect some of the attention Facebook has been getting regarding misinformation that spreads wildly on the service.

However, Casey Newton at The Verge noticed something else askew with the top posts: Nearly all of them were plagiarized.

According to his analysis of the twenty posts, when you look at the 19 that are still online, 15 of them originated off the site and contained no attribution to their original source.

For example, the most popular post in the list was a meme posted by motivational speaker and author Gaur Dopal Das. Though it’s impossible to know where the source actually is, Ghanaian rapper M.anifest posted the image on Twitter two weeks prior, and it’s likely that too was a copy from somewhere else.

All in all, only four of the posts appeared to be original with the others being lifted from Reddit, Twitter, Quora and other sites.

However, for those that have been following Facebook, this isn’t a surprise. Facebook has a long history of valuing engagement over originality and, in doing so, has created an environment where originality is simply not expected.

This is, ultimately, very much intentional and Facebook isn’t likely to change its ways any time soon.

A Long History

Facebook’s history when it comes to outside content appearing on the platform has been shaky at best. Back in 2017, the company faced widespread criticism for encouraging “Freebooting“, a practice where users would download YouTube videos and reupload them on Facebook, exploiting Facebook’s algorithm to obtain very high viewing numbers.

But while 2017 was the year that the term freebooting came into our collective consciousness (thanks to YouTuber Destin Sandlin), the practice actually began to first get attention in early 2015, when Facebook’s video offering was still fairly new.

Facebook has always prioritized engagement over originality. The algorithm it uses doesn’t reward creativity or uniqueness, it rewards interaction, specifically engagement on Facebook itself. The goal is simple, not to have the best and most original content, but to have the content that keeps people on the site the longest, whatever that is.

This has created an unusual situation. Facebook’s preference for high-engagement content, regardless of originality, makes it so that the vast majority of its most popular content is not original to it or the people who publish it. That, in turn, creates a shifting expectation and raises a serious question: Does anyone actually expect content on Facebook to be original?

If there is no expectation of originality, then are those 15 posts actually plagiarism or just people using Facebook how they’re expected to use it?

The Expectation of Originality

When it comes to plagiarism, we often tend to think of it in terms of a plagiarist and a victim. The person who did the stealing and the person who was stolen from.

However, it’s not that simple. As we discussed last year, there’s actually two separate victims in a plagiarism case. The first is the person who was plagiarized, the second the audience that was told the lie.

This is where that question comes into play: Do readers have an expectation of originality on Facebook?

When readers see a journalist publish a bylined article, there’s an expectation that the journalist wrote that story. We have similar expectations of non-ghostwritten books, musicians, artists, photographers, and a slew of other creators. But does that exist with Facebook?

Going back to Das’ extremely popular post, did the millions of people who saw the post believe he created it? Or do they assume that he was sharing something he found elsewhere?

This is not a simple question to answer. The site has an estimated 1.8 billion active daily users, and they span the globe. Each bring their personal perspective to this issue. It’s very likely that there is no unified answer.

However, what is clear is that Facebook is doing what it can to crush that expectation. Whether by design or by accident, by not rewarding original content is making it so that the most popular and visible content is unoriginal. That, in turn, works to crush the expectations that items posted to Facebook are original.

While those that share liberally may still have to answer to those they copy from, especially if it crosses the line into copyright infringement, the ethics of such sharing on Facebook is murky at best. Especially considering how Facebook rewards the behavior.

Bottom Line

To be clear, citation standards vary wildly and across fields. No one is saying that Facebook users should be held to the same citation standards as academic researchers or journalists. But this is a very fundamental question about what Facebook is meant to be.

Is it a place for us to post our creativity and originality, to show pieces of our lives? Or is it a place to share things that we find?

If it’s the latter, that has some significant implications for Facebook that go well beyond just citation issues. It means that Facebook will grow to be seen as a place to get content second. A place for content after it appears on Reddit, TikTok, YouTube, Quora or wherever else it originally appeared.

By prioritizing engagement over originality, Facebook may be making short-term gains, but it may also be dooming itself to irrelevancy in the longer term. The internet moves at a breakneck pace and no one wants to waste time getting content from the second or third place it appears.

Platforms that reward and encourage originality are much more likely to be on the cutting edge of what’s happening online. Facebook is relinquishing that position and, if its top 20 posts are any indication, has given up that ground completely.