Conspiracy, propaganda, junk science, and straight-up fake news… who is still sharing it? Is it still something to worry about or can we hope that social users and platforms have become savvy to it all?
The spread of misinformation is something we’ve been keeping a close eye on, especially as we launch our Research Center and in our recent Facebook algorithm report. We saw that Your Newswire, a prolific fake news site, has been responsible for a couple of the most viral stories of the year, and the data backs it up:
Despite being fake, the site has accrued more than 3.5 million Facebook engagements in February 2018 alone. This means shares on web articles, and then additional likes, reactions, comments and subsequent shares to that content on Facebook.
So why is actual fake news still being shared?
We’ve been told by a reformed fake news creator, Jestin Coler, that fear is what sells.
Your Newswire’s content has a few attributes that make it spread like wildfire. The content often does the following:
- Sparks fear and outrage
- Frequently covers issues that go across party lines
- Not always blatantly false at first glance
- Confirms fears or conspiracies that readers might already worry about (i.e. child abuse and the Catholic Church, a flu shot making people sick, secret government plots)
We can see these attributes in Your Newswire’s most engaging stories of 2018 thus far.
The top story had nearly 850,000 Facebook engagements alone, with more than 5,000 comments on the article itself through the Disqus plugin. The majority appear to be legitimate comments, not low-quality remarks from bots. Though it’s possible that some of these could be Your Newswire starting the conversations under pseudonyms and puppets.
Another interesting note is that there are only two authors we see attributed here. Baxter Dmitry authored eight of the top ten stories. Dmitry has 5,600+ followers on Twitter, who regularly comment on the links he shares from Your Newswire, as though they’re true.
If these stories get shared by more reputable sites and communities, they can snowball.
This Facebook post from Future in America drove 30,000 shares and nearly 900 comments, though the article in question was debunked.
How do fake news sites spread content on Facebook?
While fake content is clearly engaged with by people, how are the fake news’ sites own efforts at native distribution going?
If we look directly on Facebook, we can see whether Facebook has directly impacted the reach of the fake news sites’ own Facebook Pages. We looked at Your Newswire and the People’s Voice, which is owned by Your Newswire.
The People’s Voice had way more engagements than Your Newswire, perhaps since it appears to be unrelated to Your Newswire at first glance.
Despite this, both pages have seen a decline in engagements, while their follower counts have grown, according to NewsWhip Analytics:
From January 1st through March 30th, Your Newswire has gained ~860 followers, and the People’s Voice, ~32,500 followers.
Even with more followers, there’s still been a steady decrease in actual engagements.
Hyper-political, embellished sources
What about other sites, that publish sensationalized news articles, or articles that aren’t 100 percent based on hard facts?
The publisher Conservative Daily Post continues to drive engagements, despite it being debunked several times by Snopes and being listed on Politifact’s fake news list.
We looked at the website and native Facebook engagements for March 2017 through March 2018. Here’s the month-by-month of total engagements:
It doesn’t seem like a significant change at first glance. However, if you change that view to average engagements to articles for the same time period, you can see that it changes significantly:
So perhaps some of Facebook’s changes from August 2017 onward did indeed impact the spread of their stories in the newsfeeds, though it hasn’t been completely eradicated.
Looking at 2017 vs 2018, Conservative Daily Post’s top story of this year drove 53,678 Facebook engagements: “Just In: Democrat Gov. Orders Firearm Confiscation, Police “Make Residents Safer” By Entering Homes”, published Mar 1st, 2018.
In comparison, 2017’s top story drove 215,288 FB engagements: “Gov. Brown Signs Next Sanctuary Bill, $115M Cut From Middle-Class Education For Illegals Instead.”
Again, these stories follow Your Newswire’s strategy of invoking fear and outrage.
If we look at Conservative Daily Post’s Facebook Page engagements — content posted directly to its Facebook Page, we can see the publisher’s engagements been hit pretty hard, along with another Facebook Page called the Anonymous Conservative, which appears to be a direct influencer or reporter for the website.
Let’s look at average engagements to native content:
As we saw with Your Newswire, there has been a severe decline in engagements to content that is directly posted by the Facebook Pages.
And indeed, while Your Newswire and the People’s Voice have gained followers this year, these two above Pages have lost followers:
Though two publishers don’t make for an all-inclusive analysis, we can see that Facebook’s efforts to deprioritize misleading content and clickbait publishers seems to have had some effect.
The role of platforms and fake news
Facebook’s algorithm changes do impact visibility of content in the news feed, especially content from Facebook Pages. Facebook has taken measures against clickbait, against fake news, and other shady tactics.
From our analysis of their proprietary Facebook Pages, Conservative Daily Post, Your Newswire, and other fake news publishers are getting these engagements through other means. That could be people organically posting to their own news feeds, to friends’ news feeds, or to closed Facebook groups. It’s possible that part of it could be bots sharing those links.
Ultimately, it’s going to come down to the question of whether Facebook’s role is to censor fake news or junk content, when it’s coming from users sharing it with their network of families and friends. Facebook’s released its community guidelines here around fake news. When it comes to the users itself, the guidelines read:
We are working to build a more informed community and reduce the spread of false news in a number of different ways, namely by… Empowering people to decide for themselves what to read, trust and share by informing them with more context in-product and promoting news literacy
What’s real and what’s fake can be increasingly hard to identify, as we saw last week with Jordan Peele’s fake Obama video (below) that went viral on BuzzFeed, and Axios’s reporting on politicized CGI Instagram influencers.
Fake news is an issue across platforms. According to an Axios interview with Matt Weiner, CEO of LinkedIn, “arguably the most important” way that Linkedin stays ahead of fake news and platform abuse is through “manual curation and the role of editors.”
For now, it’s best to continue to take what you read with a grain of salt.
Learn more about the changes on Facebook and social distribution this year in our Facebook Algorithm Report.