Fake News Gets More Engagement on Facebook—But Only If It’s Right-Wing

It’s not exactly a secret that extreme, less-than-accurate content finds a big audience on Facebook. In the months before last year’s election, the list of most-engaged-with pages on the site was almost always dominated by far-right figures like Dan Bongino and Dinesh D’Souza, who are not known for their fealty to fact-based journalism. An anonymous Facebook executive told Politico last September, “Right-wing populism is always more engaging.” New research released today, however, appears to be the first to show empirically that the relationship between accuracy and engagement varies dramatically based on where the source aligns on the partisan spectrum.

According to researchers at the Cybersecurity for Democracy project at New York University, far-right purveyors of misinformation have by far the highest levels of engagement per follower compared to any other category of news source. Indeed, the researchers found that while left-leaning and centrist publications get much less engagement if they publish misinformation, the relationship is reversed on the far right, where news organizations that regularly publish false material get up to 65 percent more engagement than ones that don’t. The study provides perhaps the most substantial evidence yet about what types of news—and fake news—perform best according to this metric on Facebook.

“What we find is that among the far right in particular, misinformation is more engaging than non-misinformation,” said Laura Edelson, a doctoral candidate and the lead researcher. “I think this is something that a lot of people thought might be the case, but now we can really quantify it, we can specifically identify that this is really true on the far right, but not true in the center or on the left.”

The analysis is an excerpt from an academic working paper. The team looked at 2,973 Facebook pages of US news sources that had been analyzed for partisanship and accuracy by two independent organizations, NewsGuard and Media Bias/Fact Check. This allowed the team to categorize each source both by ideological positioning—far right, slightly right, center, slightly left, far left—and by whether or not it had been flagged for regularly publishing false content. Of course, these rankings are an inexact science, but Edelson said the two databases were generally consistent with each other and with her own spot-checks of individual news sources.

Next, using CrowdTangle, a Facebook-owned tool that analyzes activity on the platform, Edelson and her team downloaded every public post from every one of the news organizations’ Facebook and Instagram pages for a five-month period between August and January, tallying how many likes, comments, or other interactions each page accumulated. This allowed them to rank each publication by engagement per follower. Finally, they plotted that engagement score against each category of publication.

The results were striking. In the far left, slightly left, and center categories, publications rated credible by NewsGuard and MBFC saw between two and five times as much engagement as ones that were not. (Fake news published by centrist organizations, the study notes, tends to be of the medical quackery variety.) In the slightly right category, accurate sources held only a slim edge. It’s in the far-right category that things get strange: Sources designated as purveyors of misinformation saw 426 interactions per thousand followers in an average week, compared to only 259 for far-right sources without the misinformation label. Both those engagement numbers dwarf any other category; the next highest is “far left, not misinformation,” at only about 145 interactions per thousand followers per week.

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