Far-right news and misinformation received the most engagement on Facebook during 2020 US election

Illustration by Alex Castro / The Verge

In the weeks before and after the 2020 US election, Facebook content from far-right sources of news and misinformation received more engagement than other sources elsewhere on the political spectrum, a new study from New York University has revealed.

The findings suggest that far-right pages have an advantage energizing followers on the world’s biggest social network. “My takeaway is that, one way or another, far-right misinformation sources are able to engage on Facebook with their audiences much, much more than any other category,” Laura Edelson, a researcher at NYU’s Cybersecurity for Democracy initiative who helped compile the report, told CNN. “That’s probably pretty dangerous on a system that uses engagement to determine what content to promote.”

Researchers looked at some 8.6 million public posts shared by 2,973 “news and information sources” from August 10th, 2020 to January 11th, 2021, categorizing the political slant and verisimilitude of their output based on evaluations by independent outlets like NewsGuard and Media Bias/Fact Check. The study measured how often Facebook users engaged with this content — sharing, commenting, or responding with reactions.

Data from NYU’s study shows far-right sources of news and misinformation outperforming other parts of the political spectrum.
Image: NYU Cybersecurity for Democracy

Their findings showed that far-right sources generated the highest average number of interactions per post, followed by far-left sources, then more centrist pages. Looking specifically at far-right sources, they found that pages spreading misinformation performed best. “Far-right sources designated as spreaders of misinformation had an average of 426 interactions per thousand followers per week, while non-misinformation sources had an average of 259 weekly interactions per thousand followers,” write the researchers.

Notably, the study showed that while spreading misinformation meant less engagement for sources on the far-left, left, center, and right wing of the political spectrum, it actually seemed to be an advantage for sources on the far-right. “Being a consistent spreader of far-right misinformation appears to confer a significant advantage,” said the authors.

The study is yet more evidence against the claim made by conservative politicians that Facebook is biased against right-wing sources. It also casts doubts on the efficacy of Facebook’s efforts to limit the spread of misinformation in the run-up to the US 2020 election.

The researchers behind the study note that their findings are limited, too. Although they were able to measure and compare engagement from different sources on Facebook, they couldn’t check how many people actually saw a piece of content or how long they spent reading it. Facebook simply doesn’t provide this data, leaving an incomplete picture.

“Such information would help researchers better analyze why far-right content is more engaging,” write the researchers. “Further research is needed to determine to what extent Facebook algorithms feed into this trend, for example, and to conduct analysis across other popular platforms, such as YouTube, Twitter, and TikTok. Without greater transparency and access to data, such research questions are out of reach.”

Comments

People have always found conspiracy theories interesting for a wide variety of reasons, and this is not confined to just the far right. The far left was promoting the conspiracy theory that the US president was a Russian agent and needed to be removed for a number of years. Heck even the main stream media was fully behind that particular conspiracy theory.

You cant eliminate conspiracy theories because the more you try to suppress them, the more attractive and valid they seem. The more tightly you squeeze your hand full of sand, the more sand will escape. So quit trying to push this narrative that we need to ‘control’ the spread of conspiracy theories, it’s counter productive.

I think that’s totally not what misinformation is about. It’s okay to discuss conspiracy theories but you need to label it as conspiracy theory. The problem comes when people behave as if it is true, or worse, factual.

The problem is that one person’s conspiracy theory is another person’s reality. I had a lot of my left leaning friends tell me that Trump was a secret Russian agent and they fully believed it. To them that was not a conspiracy theory, it was a fact supported by main stream news outlets. I would label that a conspiracy theory (since there was no evidence to prove it) and yet lots of media outlets were running with it.

My point still stands though. People are prone to believing conspiracy theories and the more a government or corporation tries to suppress these conspiracy theories, the more weight they grant that particular theory, after all, why would they want to suppress it if it was not true. That’s how the mind of a person believing in these things works.

The drive to believe in conspiracies is as you describe.
Misinformation is when fake news is used to boost people’s tendencies to believe in (obviously fake) conspiracy theories. I think you highlighted how even non-fake news can drive people to believe in the whole Russian kompromat thing, and that didn’t even take fake news, so it doesn’t take much to light a fire behind an absurd idea. After all it is a lot easier to get people to believe a small lie after they first buy into a big lie.

No shit. It’s easy to create compelling headlines and stories when you’re not constrained by facts.

A tonne (maybe a majority?) of people distrust the mainstream media and believe they are dishonest, and more interested in furthering their own agenda than presenting the news, because far to often the mainstream media are dishonest, and more interested in furthering their own agenda than presenting the news!

How you manage to go from that distrust to believing a cabal of immortal pedophiles are coordinating with the lizard people living under Antarctica to install a new world order is the part I’ll never understand.

When you refute the main source of truth, where do you get it no longer matters.

How do the researchers determine what sources are conservative or far right ?

categorizing the political slant and verisimilitude of their output based on evaluations by independent outlets like NewsGuard and Media Bias/Fact Check

A solid slice of the progressive movement subscribes to socialist ideals which are all derived from Marxist ideology. A solid example of this is Black Lives Matter co-founder Patrisse Cullors who came out in a video in 2015 declaring herself and her co-founders as "trained Marxists". Obviously not everyone in the progressive moment is Marxist but alot of their ideas are derived from that vile ideology.

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