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In the months before and after the 2020 election, far-right pages that are known to spread misinformation consistently garnered more engagement on Facebook than any other partisan news, according to a New York University study published Wednesday.
The study looked at Facebook engagement for news sources across the political spectrum between Aug. 10, 2020 and Jan. 11, 2021, and found that on average, far-right pages that regularly trade in misinformation raked in 65% more engagement per follower than other far-right pages that aren't known for spreading misinformation.
That finding was specific to the far right. In every other category — including far left, slightly left, center and slightly right — misinformation pages saw significantly less engagement than non-misinformation pages of the same political slant.
The research casts doubt on Facebook's efforts to limit the spread of election misinformation leading up to Election Day in November and in the aftermath of the January attack on the U.S. Capitol. Far from a barrier to engagement, the researchers wrote, "Being a consistent spreader of far-right misinformation appears to confer a significant advantage."
The researchers analyzed 2,973 news sources that had their own Facebook pages, had at least 100 followers on average and had been graded for both quality and partisan bias by the news rating organizations NewsGuard and Media Bias/Fact Check. They divided those pages on a spectrum from far right to far left and, within those categories, separated out pages that have been identified for spreading misinformation. Finally, they downloaded all of the public posts from all 2,973 pages to analyze their follower and engagement data over time.
Their findings provide yet another data point to counter conservative claims that they're being more aggressively censored than liberals. The researchers found that not only did far-right misinformation outperform every other ideological category, but far-right news in general also drew far more engagement per follower than any other category. Far-left news came in close behind, suggesting that the more extreme a news source's partisan slant is on Facebook, the more engagement it gets. Centrist news received by far the least engagement per follower during those months.
Engagement was particularly high for far-right news sources on Election Day and on Jan. 6, the day of the Capitol riot. "In the week of Jan. 6, for example, far-right news sources generated just over 500 interactions for every thousand followers of the page" the authors write. "Slightly-right or slightly-left news sources reached only around 150 interactions per thousand followers that week."
The findings align with other analyses of the top-performing posts on Facebook, which have shown far-right commentators like Dan Bongino consistently dominating in the United States.
While the study provides some firm data about how well political news sources perform, questions remain about why this is the case. The researchers can't see, for instance, how many people were shown a given post, which could contribute to the higher engagement numbers. "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," the authors wrote. "Without greater transparency and access to data, such research questions are out of reach."
Some of the paper's authors are also behind the NYU AdObserver, a browser plug-in that enables them to analyze Facebook political ad targeting data. Shortly before the election, Facebook served the AdObserver team with a cease-and-desist letter.Facebook, for its part, seems to be increasingly interested in limiting the rampant political polarization of its platform. Last month, Mark Zuckerberg announced that the company was launching an experiment to limit the amount of political news in some users' news feeds. "One of the top pieces of feedback we're hearing from our community right now is that people don't want politics and fighting to take over their experience on our services," Zuckerberg said.