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.
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.
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.
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.