WASHINGTON — On a typical morning, I, an atypically voracious consumer of news, will read several newspapers, devour much of Apple News, spend unhealthy amounts of time scanning Twitter, and monitor trending political stories on sites such as Memeorandum and Political Wire. By 9 or 10 in the morning, I feel confident that I’ve got my finger on the pulse of U.S. news.
On the morning after Tuesday’s presidential debate, I did none of this. I had tried to tune out the actual debate the night before, and did my level best to avoid reading anything about it the morning after. No newspapers, no email newsletters, no Twitter.
Instead, to get an altogether different glimpse of our increasingly broken and dysfunctional information ecosystem, I relied solely on Facebook for my news consumption. I used a list of the 10 top-performing link posts by U.S. Facebook pages accessed on Wednesday morning and let that list be my guide to the previous day’s events, including but not limited to the debate.
Equipped with the knowledge that growing numbers of Americans get their news directly from Facebook, I thought this exercise might be a useful one, a way to deepen my understanding of how so many of my fellow citizens get their information. What stories had hit the sweet spot of the almighty Facebook algorithm in the last 24 hours? What might I discover outside of my usual news-consumption habits by seeing what had gone viral on the world’s largest social media site with more than 2.7 billion users? How would the experience of informing myself and making sense of this batshit crazy world change if I filtered it through Facebook?
I NEED TO BE CLEAR about what my Facebook reading list was and wasn’t. These 10 stories had the most engagements — likes, loves, wows, comments, shares — of all posts with a link in it from a Facebook page in the U.S. This list was not a neat cross-section or representative sample of all news on Facebook. Nor was it a complete picture of the full reach of any given story: Only Facebook has access to that data, and while the company is critical of people who draw conclusions (like I have) from the top-10 most engaged link posts, it hasn’t given the public a better measure.
I also like to think the top-10 list I relied upon is its own window into the algorithm that powers Facebook, the secret formula that decides which posts and stories catch fire on the platform and which don’t. Thus I thought it useful to see the world through the stories with the most traction. My journey began with the king of Facebook content: Fox News.
The House That Roger Ailes built is known for its dominance of primetime TV, but its presence on Facebook is like Jupiter’s in our solar system — gargantuan. More than 22 million people follow Fox News on the platform and in theory consume its content on a daily basis. On a given day, Fox News’s Facebook page might have two, three, even four entries on the top-10 list of most engaged posts compiled daily by New York Times tech columnist Kevin Roose.
On my Facebook-only post-debate reading list, Fox News held the number one and number three slots. The top-ranked story boasted a staggering 215,000 engagements — and had nothing to do with the presidential debate. It was a short aggregated news item about a group of Australian law professors who had nominated President Trump for the Nobel Peace Prize for the deal he helped broker between Israel, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates.
It was Trump’s third nomination for the prize won by his predecessor, Barack Obama, in 2009. The story quoted one of the Australian law professors praising Trump for making the U.S. “energy independent of the Middle East,” which isn’t entirely true. It also quoted Trump himself telling Fox earlier this month about a previous nomination for the prize. “It’s a great honor to be nominated, and I know it has tremendous significance,” he said. “I just think it’s a great thing for our country. It shows that we’re trying to make peace, not war all the time.” (There are still 8,600 American troops in Afghanistan, the longest-running war in U.S. history.)
Next on my list: a post by Joe Biden’s campaign that linked to a CNBC story about Biden’s newly released 2019 tax returns. He and Jill Biden paid $299,346 in federal income taxes, equivalent to a 31% tax rate. The goal here was surely to make a contrast with the revelation that Trump reportedly paid a mere $750 in federal income taxes in 2016 and 2017, and used hundreds of millions in losses in the past few decades to reduce or eliminate his tax bills.
Biden pays his taxes. Straightforward enough.
From there, I navigated back to the Fox News juggernaut and to a story titled “Obama admin briefed on claims Hillary Clinton drummed up Russia controversy to vilify Trump, distract from emails.” Now there’s a word salad. I forged on.
The story said Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe, a former Texas congressman and stalwart Trump ally, had released declassified intelligence findings to members of the U.S. Senate on Tuesday afternoon related to the last presidential campaign. The intel claimed that Hillary Clinton “was attempting to tie Trump to the Russia [sic] and distract from her email scandal before the 2016 presidential election.”
Then, in the second paragraph, Fox quotes Ratcliffe’s own letter as saying the U.S. intelligence community “does not know the accuracy” of the allegations contained in the letter. So, let me get this straight: The Trump administration’s top intelligence official, a few hours before the first presidential debate, disclosed questionable intelligence without verifying its accuracy that made his boss, President Trump, look good. The story, to its credit, also quoted a spokeswoman for Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, who said the allegations contained in the letter were themselves “Russian disinformation.”
This controversy was too juicy not to check with other sources. I broke my vow to consume only Facebook-fed content and did a little extra reading. As it turns out, Warner wasn’t alone in his dismissal of the information peddled by Ratcliffe: According to Politico, Democrats and Republicans on the Senate Intel Committee had previously rejected the information put out by Ratcliffe because it had “no factual basis.” So the Fox story was…bogus? Yet someone who relied exclusively on Facebook might have seen this as a groundbreaking story that rewrote the history of the 2016 election and flipped the Trump-Russia story on its head.
Finally, I got to the debate coverage I’d been hoping for. Who had performed best on Tuesday night? What were the most compelling responses to Wallace’s pre-announced questions about defeating Covid-19 and reviving the American economy?
Four out of the next seven popular posts related to the debate. Two were intensely critical of Fox News anchor Chris Wallace’s performance as the debate’s moderator. A Daily Wire story shared by right-wing commentator Ben Shapiro noted that Wallace, “a registered Democrat,” had “faced intense backlash on Tuesday night for what was widely deemed as bias.” By way of evidence for this assertion, the Daily Wire story cited tweets from Fox News host Brian Kilmeade, Fox News host Laura Ingraham, Fox News host Greg Gutfeld, Fox News commentator Andy McCarthy, disgraced former Fox News host Bill O’Reilly, Republican lawyer and frequent Fox News guest Harmeet Dhillon, conservative actor James Woods, and Ben Shapiro. The whole story is other people’s tweets. I can’t say I learned much from it.
The other Wallace-themed story came courtesy of a Facebook page called USA Patriots for Donald Trump that has more than two million followers. USA Patriots for Donald Trump, a repository of anti-Biden and anti-Clinton and anti-Alyssa Milano content, linked to a site called Conservative Opinion that had posted a brief clip of Trump tangling with Wallace.
I watched the clip. It showed Wallace pressing Trump on whether he had anything resembling a serious health-care plan to replace the Affordable Care Act, which he and his Republicans were attempting to eliminate in court. “First of all, I guess I’m debating you, not him. But that’s okay. I’m not surprised,” Trump replied, before claiming that he was bringing down drug prices by “80 to 90 percent,” a bold pledge that as of this writing has yet to happen. I appreciated Wallace’s questioning, and I would’ve liked to have known what Trump’s full response was, not to mention Biden’s perspective, but alas the Conservative Opinion clip ended after 43 seconds.
Another Ben Shapiro post had landed in my top-10 list. Under the caption “Whoo boy,” Shapiro linked to another Daily Wire story. This one was an aggregation of a Fox News story that said the Trump campaign had made “a last-minute request” to allow “a third party to examine the ears of each participant to see if either is wearing electronic devices or transmitters.
Intrigued, I typed “biden earpiece transmitter debate” into Google. Yet again, this was too juicy to rely solely on Facebook for its accuracy and for the necessary context. The first hit on Google was a New York Times column that called it a “conspiracy theory” that Biden planned to wear a secret earpiece during the debate. NBC News traced this conspiracy theory back to a single, anonymously sourced tweet from a New York Post reporter, which in turn had set off a chain reaction of Facebook posts and frenzied promotion by Fox News, Daily Wire, and other right-wing sites as well as people who support the QAnon conspiracy theory. In the end, I could find zero evidence Biden had planned to secretly wear an earpiece.
AT THIS POINT in my information-gathering misadventure, I felt lost and exhausted. I still hadn’t read every entry on my top-10 list, but I didn’t see much use in clicking on the remaining two posts. One was from President Trump’s official Facebook page announcing an endorsement by the Fraternal Order of Police. I read that one, got the point. The other was a link to a New York Post story titled “Elon Musk says he won’t take coronavirus vaccine, calls Bill Gates a ‘knucklehead.’” Yeah, I’ll pass.
What did I learn from this exercise? For one, Fox News dominates the online conservative media echo chamber in a way I hadn’t appreciated. Its reach and influence via Sean Hannity and Tucker Carlson is plain to see, but on Facebook Fox is a powerhouse. Earlier this year, I interviewed Yochai Benkler, a Harvard law professor and one of the world’s foremost experts in online propaganda and right-wing media. Benkler told me that Fox News was “systematically at the rotten core of disinformation in the American political media ecosystem. More than anything else, and possibly more than everything else put together.” I understood this in theory when he said it, but I’ve now seen it with my own eyes.
Mostly, I came to understand how, via Facebook, one narrow and hyper-partisan corner of the information ecosystem can exert an outsized influence by tapping into primal emotions like rage, fear, and resentment, lighting up the lizard part of our brains. Facebook knows this all too well: As an unnamed executive recently told Politico, “Right-wing populism is always more engaging…Nation, protection, the other, anger, fear. That was there in the ’30s. That’s not invented by social media.”
What struck me was how that rage- and fear-filled corner of the information ecosystem could suck in even a voracious news consumer like me, how it can come to feel like the entire information ecosystem if you didn’t know better or didn’t seek out different sources of news and opinion. Imagine being shown one square inch of a 8-foot-by-8-foot canvas. Spend every day looking at that one square inch and you might come to believe that that was the entire painting.
I hadn’t completely given up on my Facebook reading list. The 11th-most-engaged story, I noticed, was a genuine mainstream news item from CNN. Under questioning from Chris Wallace and pressure from Joe Biden, I learned, Trump had refused to condemn white supremacy and had even told the Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by” before pivoting to complain about “Antifa and the left” because domestic extremism “is not a right-wing problem.” The CNN story added useful context, noting that the Proud Boys were designed a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, and that white supremacists “will remain the most ‘persistent and lethal threat’ in the United States through 2021, according to Department of Homeland Security draft documents.”
Stand back and stand by? What did Trump mean by that? Was it a mild condemnation or a call to arms? The answers to these questions struck me as pretty damn important, and I felt irritated that nothing I’d read so far had offered substantive answers. And so I did the only thing that made sense: I left Facebook and went off in search for good information.
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