Facebook benefits by helping scammers mimic and rip off artists’ work

You may have seen the ads on your Facebook feed: an eye-catching sculpture created by an independent artist, offered in a series of repetitive sponsored ads, for a discounted price. But if you actually clicked the link and bought the piece, you’d probably receive either nothing or a cheap counterfeit with just a passing resemblance to the work pictured in the post.

That’s because it was just one of thousands of fake ads that spread on the social media platform in recent months, likely posted by criminal organizations in China, Vietnam, Russia and other countries, according to groups tracking such scams, using images of real works stolen from artist websites or media attention.

And the artists say Facebook isn’t doing enough to stop the scammers.

“Facebook must be held accountable,” says JL Cook, an artist based in Florida, whose minutely lifelike bronze sculptures of rattlesnakes — originally commissioned by the Chiricahua Desert Museum in Rodeo, New Mexico to serve as door handles for the main entrance — have been copied and put up for sale on the social media platform for a fraction of what the works are worth.

The scam ads appeared on Facebook less than 24 hours after she created her own e-commerce website in June to sell works directly to collectors. “The offers were from these fraudulent stores that stole my images and descriptions and claimed to sell the pieces,” Cook says.

“I thought it was a one-off, and then dozens of these ads pop up in dozens of stores — and then hundreds of these ads pop up. I’ve reported over 900 ads on my rattlesnakes on Facebook alone. There are over 93 several URLs that are fake web companies that have my work on it.”

While Cook’s made-up sculptures normally sell for thousands of dollars, the Facebook ads offered them for just $29.95 — “and you get a 50% discount if you get three pairs,” she says.

Cook reported the fake ads to Facebook, but the company has been slow to respond. Meanwhile, identical advertisements of her work have appeared from other fake sellers. The artist estimates that she spends 3-4 hours each day dealing with the fake ads, or dealing with angry buyers who thought they had ordered her real bronze works, only to receive poorly made plastic replicas or nothing at all.

The artists André Masters & CJ Munn stand with their work Icarus had a sister. Thanks to Masters & Munn.

London based artists André Masters & CJ Munn had a similar experience seeing their limited edition sculpture Icarus had a sister appear in ads on Facebook earlier this year, featuring images from their website. “They even stole videos of us standing next to the work at the Business Design Center in London, where the work was on display,” Munn says.

The cast quartz sculpture depicts a winged figure partially emerging from the wall, her back to the viewer, and features over 200, 3D-printed feathers that have been individually finished and attached to the wings. They normally sell for £50,000, but the fake stores are offering it for $23.

Unsuspecting buyers who clicked on the fake Facebook ads received fraudulent, miniature copies of Masters & Munn’s work Icarus had a sister. Thanks to Masters & Munn.

“Initially, it was pretty insulting that so many people thought they could buy it,” Munn says. “People thought that for $20 they would get a life-size, beautiful piece of art, shipped from abroad for free.”

When Munn tried to warn users that the ads were fake by leaving comments on their posts, Facebook suspended her account, saying it was spamming people, triggering the site’s anti-fraud algorithm. “I spent several days in Facebook prison,” she says.

Facebook had previously denied the artists permission to advertise the sculpture on their site, as the figure depicted is naked, and violates the site’s community standards. “But it’s clear that if people put enough money into Facebook’s pockets, they’ll be very happy,” Munn said.

The artist Anthony Howe, who creates kinetic sculptures from his studio on Orcas Island, Washington, likens the scam to a virus. “I don’t know how to stop it. It’s bizarre,” he says. “When it stops or calms down I have no idea, but Facebook definitely needs to do something.”

While Howe is large scale October sculptures normally sell for $150,000, he’s seen fake ads listing them for as little as $12. And buyers get either nothing, or portable spinners that look a bit like his works.

Anthony Howe, right, with his large-scale kinetic sculpture Octo (2014). Fake ads appeared on Facebook this year claiming to be selling his work at a huge discount, using images and videos from his website. Thanks to Anthony Howe.

Howe says he has tried to notify Facebook of the situation. “But they just blame it,” he says. And while he’s considered getting his lawyer involved, as he’s done in the past when other artists have copied his work, the scale of the fakes being generated on Facebook is overwhelming. “I’m just at a point where it’s happened so many times, it causes so much stress and it’s such a drain on the wallet, we decided we wouldn’t do it again,” Howe says.

Other independent artists who have reported images of their work being stolen and used in fake ads on Facebook and elsewhere include Marsha Blaker and Paul DeSomma, Cindy Chinn, Mike LocascioKevin Merck, Scott RadkeSadie RevenantJack Storms, Will Sutton, Tom TaggartJason Tennant, and Benjamin Victor.

“All of this wouldn’t happen if Facebook did what they’re supposed to do,” Cook said.

“There would be no way for a messy website to sell hundreds and hundreds of ads and advertise stolen content without the social media platform allowing and taking advantage of it,” she says. “That’s the salt in the wound knowing Facebook gets rich with it.”

In June, Facebook even reported its most profitable quarter ever, with ad revenue up 56% to $28.6 billion, compared to the same period in 2020. An estimated 3.5 billion people use Facebook apps every month, including Instagram, WhatsApp and Messenger, with more than 90% in countries outside the US.

And fraudulent advertising isn’t even a new concern. Last year, Buzzfeed News published a damning report based on interviews with former and current employees who said Facebook cared more about ad revenue than the safety and security of its users, allowing scammers, hackers and disinformation peddlers to run rampant.

There was even a class action lawsuit filed in August in California, brought by dozens of Facebook users duped by similar fake ads offering discounted products from toys to mechanical equipment.

Buyers click on a fake ad depicting a shattering glass vase by Marsha Blaker and Paul DeSomma got a cheap knock-off instead.

The social media giant has recently begun to come under the crosshairs of regulators, with Congress hearing the testimony of whistleblower Frances Haugen last month., a former product manager at Facebook, who said, “The company’s leadership knows how to make Facebook and Instagram more secure, but won’t make the necessary changes because they have put their astronomical profits above people.”

Facebook’s press office has not responded to our requests for comment, but according to a statement issued to the media on the day of the congressional hearing, the company says it has “invested $13 billion in the safety and security of our platform and 40,000 people has reviewing content in 50 different languages ​​working in 20 locations around the world to support our community.”

However, the community of artists on the social media site feels that they have been left to their own devices.

Masters at one point considered retraining as a paramedic and giving up the arts entirely. “It’s so damaging to your soul, as an artist,” he says. “I mean, it took us nine years to prototype the original and so much love and sacrifice went into making and developing it. And when you see it being used to rip people off and people’s angry and hurt reactions online, it’s like having someone you love being violated over and over again.”

Cook, who spent more than 20 years as a commercial sculptor in the toy and gift industry, fears the scams will only get worse if Facebook doesn’t take responsibility. “My career was tied to copyrights and licenses,” she says. “This was the first work to have my name on it and it didn’t have a ‘Made in China’ stamped on the back. This was the first work I could claim as my own. And now it’s ‘Made in China’. I fight tooth and nail to maintain my moral rights of authorship to be known as the creator of this work. And I’m losing.”

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