Fake news didn’t make Trump president – there is just as much junk on the left as the right

As the world reacts to the news that Donald Trump has been elected the 45th President of the United States, the role of social media in general and Facebook in particular has come under close scrutiny for the role it plays in disseminating news and opinion.  Social media is used as a news source by 62% of US adults, and Facebook is by far the most widely used social network, used by over two thirds of the adult population.

From the tone of much post-election reporting, one might surmise that the key to the Republican victory was due to an unthinking populous being deceived by a deluge of pro-Trump fictitious news on Facebook. However, there is no evidence whatsoever to suggest that this is true. In fact, when it comes to memes, propaganda and other nonsense on Facebook, there is arguably more that leans to the left than the right.

I used this Facebook page post scraper to build a dataset containing all the status updates posted to Facebook by a range of US media outlets. The sample of media outlets chosen is intended to be reasonably representative of both traditional media and new media sources, including those with both a left wing and right wing lean.

Newspapers were chosen on the basis of being ranked as a top newspaper on Facebook by Innova et Bella, media outlets were chosen from this list, and I picked partisan news sources that were featured on the Wall Street Journal’s Blue Feed, Red Feed project, which shows left leaning and right leaning news sources on Facebook side by side.

When a media source has more than one Facebook page, I only obtained data for the largest in terms of “likes” (I made an exception for BuzzFeed, which includes both BuzzFeed and BuzzFeed News). I tried my best to get as representative a list as possible, so apologies if I have left anyone very important out. I excluded satirical sites, and the Facebook sites of the candidates themselves.

The media providers I selected were (in alphabetical order): ABC News, Addicting Info, Bloomberg, Breitbart, BuzzFeed, CBS News, Chicago Tribune, CNN, Dallas Morning News, FiveThirtyEight, Fox News, Freedom Daily News, Gateway Pundit, Huffington Post, Laura Ingraham, Los Angeles Times, Mother Jones, NBC News, New York Times, Newsweek, NPR, Occupy Democrats, Politico, Right Wing News, Sean Hannity, The Daily Caller, The Eagle Is Rising, The Other 98%, The Raw Story, Think Progress, TIME Magazine, USA Today, Vox, Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post.

The resulting dataset contains data on 1.2 million posts, which have collectively caused 3.4 billion reactions (likes, sads, hearts, etc.), and have been shared over 1.5 billion times. So far in 2016, these sources made 371,142 posts, which caused 1.4 billion reactions and over 610 million shares.

The chart below shows the total reactions to posts made in 2016, broken down by source. Fox News was the single largest generator of reactions to Facebook posts, with over 217m. News providers which I believe have an overt partisan lean have been shaded either blue (left) or red (right). Please don’t shout at me if you think I have misclassified any of these.

reactionsbypublisher

Whilst the influence of Fox News on conservative thought in the United States is well known, it is striking how many reactions have been generated by Occupy Democrats, which proclaims itself as “a political organization and information website” and was founded in 2012.

Much of Occupy Democrats’ content consists of memes and videos alongside status updates like “Trump supporters are as DUMB as you think!” and “Robert de Niro wants to PUNCH TRUMP IN THE FACE”, and other such material unlikely to be troubling the Pulitzer Prize committee any time soon. In terms of engagement, they are far ahead even of influential right wing news sites such as Breitbart, and light years ahead of traditional media publications such as the Wall Street Journal, the Dallas Morning News or Newsweek.

Incidentally, the most reacted to post across all the publishers I looked at in 2016 was this BuzzFeed post from the 7th of November, which asked readers “Who Will Win: Dog Or Cat? Vote “Like” For Dog. Vote “Heart” For Cat”. To date this post has received 2.25m reactions. The dog received 1.55m votes, which would have placed fourth in the election behind Libertarian candidate (4.46m), but ahead of Green Party candidate Jill Stein, who received 1.43m votes. If Dr. Stein is unhappy about losing the popular vote to a dog on BuzzFeed, I would be happy to recount these figures again, for the very reasonable sum of $2 million  $5 million.

Incidentally, if these reactions had have been distributed equally amongst US states by population, there would have been 89,484 reactions from Pennsylvania, 69,931 from Michigan and 40,474 from Wisconsin. Had Hillary Clinton received these as additional votes in the election, she would have carried all three states, and therefore been elected president.

It has been argued that shares are a more important measure of engagement than likes and other reactions, and in terms of number of shares the influence of left leaning clickbait merchants becomes even more apparent. Occupy Democrats has been the most widely shared news provider on Facebook this year, with 140 million shares, nearly double that of second placed Fox News which had its stories shared 72 million times. Another left wing partisan news provider, The Other 98% placed third. Breitbart placed fifth, narrowly ahead of BuzzFeed and CNN.

sharesbypublisher

In terms of average shares, the number of shares received by each provider divided by the number of posts that they made, the influence of sites such as Occupy Democrats and The Other 98% becomes even more stark. A typical Occupy Democrats post was shared over 25,000 times; 3.9 times the equivalent figure for Fox News, 8.9 times the typical Breitbart post, and over 251 times the average share count for posts made by the Wall Street Journal.

avgsharesbypublisher

It is undeniable that traditional media outlets on Facebook are losing the battle for clicks and shares to newer sources that are more effective at the dark arts of fermenting sadness and rage amongst its readers and then selling it back to them. However, there is scant evidence that Trump was the beneficiary of this sea change. In fact, if elections were won by the volume of fact-free, partisan rubbish shared on Facebook, then Hillary Clinton would have won the popular vote by an even larger margin than she actually did.

The decline of the traditional news industry, and the cannibalization of the profession of journalism by those peddling cheap propaganda and easy clicks is of grave concern to society. Traditionally, the biggest threats to an independent media have been authoritarian governments. However, now the problem is an economic one, i.e. the demand for paying money in exchange for real news is dwindling, as people can go on social media and have their priors confirmed for free. When it is economically unviable for reporters to spend time exposing corruption and holding elected officials and corporations to account, a vital check on the powerful is lost.

It will prove hard to rebottle the genie, and convince readers that buying their local newspaper is a better way of reading about the world than the dopamine buzz of signalling to their friends and family their heartfelt desire to seeing the President Elect being “PUNCHED IN THE FACE”.

The danger of junk news is real. But it didn’t elect President Trump.

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  • Andrew Gallagher

    Interesting stuff. I’d add a couple of caveats though.

    1. The analysis does not distinguish between different kinds of “fact free nonsense”. “Trump is an orange moron” and “bad hombres are coming across the border” are both worthless as news stories, but they don’t have equal and opposite effects on the political debate.

    2. It also neglects the fact that the largest single Republican-biased source (Fox News) has a reach into traditional media that the top Democrat-biased sources do not. Considering that old media still dominates political discourse, it is hard to buy the argument that like is being compared with like.

    3. Also, simply measuring raw shares is fraught with problems. It doesn’t attempt to distinguish by country of residence, for example. One would expect the Democrat-biased sites to have a much greater appeal outside the US than Fox. Now, given the size of the US compared to the rest of the English-language web, this may not be a significant correction, but it would be nice to have it quantified.

  • Reader

    Andrew Gallagher: …both worthless as news stories, but they don’t have equal and opposite effects on the political debate.
    I’m not sure about that. After all, we’re specifically talking about the sort of voter who would ‘Like’ or ‘Share’ this sort of stuff. We’re not really picking out the thoughtful and reflective types.

  • It is not the total volume of posts, likes and shares that matters, as much as what particular groups of voters see. Paid promotion targeting can make a voter see a lot of posts that will influence him or her. This was used in a voter suppression effort by the Trump campaign:

    https://medium.com/startup-grind/how-the-trump-campaign-built-an-identity-database-and-used-facebook-ads-to-win-the-election-4ff7d24269ac#.1np8zesum

  • Slater

    What about the BBC which has a global reach and had an unrelenting diet of anti-Trump stories and articles?

  • Thought Criminal

    “Please don’t shout at me if you think I have misclassified any of these.”

    Sorry, but you don’t have the slightest clue. Buzzfeed, ABC, Huffington Post, CNN, NY Times, NPR, TIME, Washington Post, Vox (and there are some I’ve left out) are also all lying leftist pro-Democrat anti-Trump lugenpresse mouthpieces.

    If you want the pro-Trump news sources then just look for anything on these “fake news” lists which is nothing other than an incredulous political attempt to politically dominate the media even further and invert reality by pathetically labelling anything which isn’t the mainstream lugenpresse as “fake”.

  • Sir Rantsalot

    Peter, its great that you have picked up on the issue of fake news. But unfortunately you seem to have searched on mainstream media to find out what is fake. It is actually the mainstream media that is the fake news. Not everything, just the big political issues affecting world power. The MSM is owned and controlled by the same elites that control politicians. It is these controlled entities that are crying ‘fake news’. But what they are actually doing is trying to shut down the independent news sites that are massively popular and have 10s of millions of visitors. Its these sites that are reporting the wiki leaks corruption scandals about the Democrat party and the Clintons, and other real news about the elites corruption in the world today. The controlled MSM including BBC / Skynews etc, will not report these things. When you drop the MSM and get info from the independent news sites, then you’ll know exactly where the fake news is coming from.

    Have a look at the top US web sites. See the independent news site visitors each month. This is why the US election went against the MSM propaganda, and voted for someone who was anti elite establishment and pro America. The US public know the truth about what is actually happening in their country.

    https://www.quantcast.com/top-sites/US/2

    113 drudgereport.com 11,261,709
    137 dailycaller.com 9,800,278
    165 infowars.com 8,549,462
    196 zerohedge.com 7,674,364

  • npbinni

    Wow, that’s a wealth of information. Thanks for pulling it all together. I had to laugh, though, at the gray classification of notable bipartisan outlets such as the NY Times, CNN and HuffPost. Hilarious.

  • salmonofdata

    The grey doesn’t mean it’s bipartisan. It’s obviously impossible to objectively say which way a publication leans. It was more a rough guide, in that no one would argue Occupy Democrats leans left, whilst Right Wing News leans right (it’s literally called Right Wing News). I’ll grant that HuffPo is a borderline case.

  • npbinni

    You are right, SoD. Maybe objective would be aneven funnier adjective.

  • Brendan Heading

    I must say, I’m terribly confused.

    I mean, you’re saying that the American voters all saw through the evil liberal media conspiracy. Yet strangely, there are people out there claiming that almost 3 million more of them voted for Hillary than voted for Trump. How can this be ?!?

  • Brendan Heading

    -1, Nazi

  • Brendan Heading

    Peter, long day at the office so I’m not quite parsing the whole article (and going by the comments so far, that seems to be true of most people) but I don’t think it’s quite comparing like with like here. I see what you’re trying to do by putting numbers and evidence around this to try to measure the level of disinformation being disseminated, but I don’t think that will quite do it.

    I agree that sites such as Occupy Democrats and similar, on the left end of the spectrum, are not in any way high quality and post a lot of clickbait and fanciful stuff. I don’t follow such pages (Daily Kos would be as far as I go – unashamedly liberal opinion, but they’re careful about sources and facts).

    But to pick on the two examples you noted : “Trump supporters are as DUMB as you think!” and “Robert de Niro wants to PUNCH TRUMP IN THE FACE” – the first of these is arguably true, and the second is a straightforward reporting of a fact, as those are De Niro’s own words. People who believe(d) that Trump has any intention of, for example, “draining the swamp”, or believe that he is acting in the interests of blue collar workers are, quite arguably, idiots. I don’t think this is “false news” – this is opinion, and a biased but nonetheless fact-based reporting of events.

    This isn’t in the same class as the types of editorial line carried by some of the way-out-there right wing sites, such as Brietbart. I saw an article of theirs a while ago which openly said that the election of Sadiq Kahn heralded a Muslim takeover of London, Sharia law and all the rest. There’s no fact there at all. Similar sites have been circulating stories about Obama being a Muslim (false), a socialist (opinion, but pretty false), famously not born in the USA (completely false), a Nazi (obviously false) a dictator who has enacted more executive orders than anyone else (false), a person who uses a teleprompter more than anyone else (false). I’ve also seen the stories about Hillary Clinton laughing about getting a paedophile released (basically false) and being complict in a murder (entirely false).

    Another level beyond this again is Infowars and Alex Jones, which is open and unrepentant disinformation about chemtrails, vaccines and the usual. Those kinds of places are where it gets really dangerous; in a free society, free speech must be protected, but when people are actively endangering public health, rather than just their own, by refusing vaccinations it’s a new kind of problem.

    Fox News bears some of the blame for this; they’re not the worst, but they started it. Most of the time Fox is a right-wing news station with right-wing opinions. No problem, that’s free speech. But from time to time, anchors have strayed well beyond this. Fox played a major role during the case of Terri Schiavo. Fox ran stories and dug up fraudulent “experts” who claimed that Schiavo was able to talk and was being slowly murdered by the hospice, when in reality she was in a irreversible persistent vegetative state, later confirmed by the autopsy. This was the first major “fake news” story that I can remember, and it’s pretty much gone downhill from there.

    I’d be very interested to hear if any of the right wing commenters reading Slugger can provide me with examples of liberal bias that are similar in force and falsehood to the fraudulent nonsense I’ve outlined in the examples above.

  • salmonofdata

    I purposefully tried to avoid adjudicating on the truthiness or otherwise of the various stories, as obviously fact checking 1m+ posts is completely impossible. I was trying to make the point that there is probably just as much left-leaning rubbish and clickbait on Facebook as stuff that leans to the right, if not more so.

    I think the bigger point of the whole fake news thing is that the switch of advertising money from newspapers, who employ journalists and (sometimes) embark on old-fashioned practices such as checking facts, to cynical producers of trashy memes is killing the news industry. Producing memes is cheap, whilst actual journalism isn’t. Occupy Democrats consist of five people in a living room. The New York Times, on the other hand, employs 1,150 news staff.

    I think it’s interesting that ire of the far right is frequently aimed at the mainstream press, and not their opposite numbers on the far left. Ultimately, both the far left and the far right are embroiled in the same dance on social media, angering each other into an ever greater maelstrom of rage, likes, shares, and advertising revenues.

  • Starviking

    I’m not right wing, more centrist, but of false news on the left – centre-left spectrum we have things like telling half-truths to stir up anger about Buckingham Palace refurbs, listing total-life costs of Trident replacement because it gives a very big number, lack of dillegence when reporting on renewable energy and the military, and anti-vaccine memes (though thankfully less prevalent than in the past). I guess we could also add Corbyn’s train antics to that list.

  • Brendan Heading

    As Peter notes, we are talking about quality which is more difficult and very subjective, but I still don’t think these things are of the same order.

    I certainly accept that the reporting of some of the issues above has been exaggerated or has left certain details out. On Buckingham Palace I think it was fair to have a debate about the cost of maintaining the monarchy, and the question about whether or not the refurbishment should have been funded out of the Sovereign Grant was a legitimate one, even if it wasn’t quite framed in those terms.

    I see a similar story doing the rounds about the residence of Jacob Rees-Mogg’s wife, suggesting she was getting a huge grant from the state to fix up her house; a bit of investigation shows that this was sort of true but not the full story.

    Listing total-life costs of Trident is entirely fair; “total cost of ownership” is a financial figure regularly used in both the public and private sector. On the other hand, I’ve certainly seen some really bad coverage on renewable energy. The Independent (now, sadly, a source of a lot of rubbish of this kind) had a headline saying that the UK ran completely on renewable energy for six days, which seems to be completely false. Reading the article, you can see that the headline appears to come from the assumption that all power generation that is not coal is “renewable”, which is a pretty laughable way to talk about natural gas and nuclear.

    I think these issues correlate with some of the points on the right, for example someone saying “Obamacare will destroy your private medical insurance” (which may well be true in quite a few cases, depending on how you define the word ‘destroy’).

    But to repeat my earlier examples, there is no kind of basis in fact for the allegation that Obama is a Muslim who intends to impose Sharia law, or, to pick the other example, that Terri Schiavo was conscious and able to speak but that the doctors were trying to murder her.

  • Thought Criminal

    You are misrepresenting the Infowars position on vaccines. Alex Jones has explicitly said that they are not saying not to take vaccines, rather emphasised the dangers if given to infants less than one year of age as there is a correlation between higher vaccine loads in infants and infant mortality in the West if compared to Japan where the vaccine load and infant mortality rates are lower.

  • npbinni

    The Harvard Kennedy School has put together some very interesting and illuminating charts and graphs, etc. that may bring a little perspective to the current thread…
    http://shorensteincenter.org/news-coverage-2016-general-election/

  • Brendan Heading

    Utter nonsense.