InfoWars isn’t the only misinforming page that’s still allowed to publish on Facebook.
YourNewsWire is one of the most popular fake news publishers in the world. The website, run by two men in Los Angeles, regularly pumps out hoaxes and conspiracy theories. It has promoted the Pizzagate conspiracy theory and has been the subject of a glossy profile by The Hollywood Reporter.
And despite being debunked at least 80 times, and having its posts fact-checked as false through Facebook’s fact-checking partnership at least 45 times, YourNewsWire is still publishing on the platform — amassing hundreds of thousands of engagements each month.
How Facebook decides which pages get the ax has been a topic of debate among tech and media journalists over the past week. During an on-the-record event for reporters last Wednesday, CNN reporter Oliver Darcy asked a simple question: Why does the platform allow InfoWars to publish if it regularly spreads blatant misinformation?
That’s the question Poynter set out to answer, analyzing the reach of InfoWars and YourNewsWire in the period since the fact-checking product was launched to see how Facebook’s anti-misinformation effort has limited the reach of each site.
What we found is that Facebook’s product hasn’t been a waste of time — but it hasn’t exactly been a runaway success, either.
Counting the debunks
U.S. fact-checking organizations have been debunking fake news stories on Facebook since December 2016, when the tech company launched arguably its most visible effort to combat misinformation — a program in which independent fact-checkers are given access to a Facebook tool that shows them content users have reported as potentially false.
Then the system uses fact-checkers’ articles as a signal to decrease debunked stories’ reach in News Feed by up to 80 percent after an average of three days. (Disclosure: Being a signatory of the International Fact-Checking Network’s code of principles is a necessary condition for joining the project.)
Fact-checkers have told Poynter in the past that the partnership is helpful for surfacing hoaxes they might not have seen otherwise, but they have doubts about its ability to scale to the amount of misinformation that’s published on a daily basis. Calls for more data from Facebook resulted in an academic partnership that the platform launched last week — but we still don’t know how some of the top hoaxers have been affected by fact-checkers’ work.
Poynter’s analysis looked at stories debunked by Snopes, (Poynter-owned) PolitiFact, Factcheck.org and the Associated Press Fact Check from YourNewsWire and InfoWars since the launch of Facebook’s fact-checking partnership (all four U.S. organizations participate in the program).
We didn’t include debunks without specific links or at least a “mixture” rating — both of which are required to flag a post on Facebook.
According to our analysis, Snopes, PolitiFact, Factcheck.org and the AP have debunked stories from YourNewsWire at least 80 times over the past year and a half. Of those, 45 were flagged in Facebook’s system, which alerts users to related fact checks before they share a link.
By comparison, the same four fact-checkers have rated stories from InfoWars as false at least 28 times in the same time period — less than half the number of debunks that YourNewsWire has received. Of those, only seven were flagged on Facebook, according to a Poynter analysis in which I manually tried to share each link on my personal profile.
In December, Facebook changed the number of fact checks required to flag a post from two to one. The majority of YourNewsWire and InfoWars stories that haven’t been flagged were published before that change, but about 40 percent of them are from after — meaning they were never submitted in Facebook’s system and users can still share those stories.
Per Facebook’s project, pages are notified when a fact-checker rates their content as false. Repeat offenders see their distribution reduced by Facebook and their ability to advertise taken away, though they have the chance to earn it back if they stop publishing fake news.
There’s nothing in Facebook’s anti-misinformation policies that allows for the suspension of a page for repeatedly publishing fake news — it doesn’t violate its community standards. The company doubled down on that policy last week, saying that it prefers to rely on fact-checkers to demote misinformation on a post-by-post basis instead.
Not hard in this instance. But the harder part is deciding what to do with a Page that peddles conspiracy theories big and small. We don’t think banning them is the right option – better to demote posts rated as false and the Pages that spread them.
— Facebook (@facebook) July 12, 2018
But the number of flagged stories from YourNewsWire and InfoWars is significantly smaller than the total number of debunks fact-checkers have published related to each site — and it’s still unclear to what extent fact-checkers can live up to Facebook’s vision.
Where there’s engagement
Facebook has made it clear that its goal is to limit the reach of both individual viral hoaxes and those who publish them. But according to data from BuzzSumo, a social media analytics tool, misinforming pages are still amassing substantial reach on Facebook, in spite of being repeatedly debunked by fact-checkers.
While its engagement has ebbed and flowed, YourNewsWire hasn’t taken that big of a hit. In 2017, the site only saw its Facebook engagements decrease by less than 2 percent from 2016 — despite publishing about 1,600 fewer articles, according to BuzzSumo. That trend held for the first seven months of 2018 as well, during which YourNewsWire has published nearly 1,500 articles less than the same period in 2016 but only lost about 8 percent of its Facebook engagements. (All data was collected between July 12 and 20.)
The site’s third most-engaging month in the past two years came in May, when fact-checkers flagged only three of its stories. July 2017 saw the most total engagement (and only two flagged stories), followed by February — during which fact-checkers only flagged one story on Facebook, according to Poynter’s analysis.
YourNewsWire’s top story so far in 2018 had received a little more than 865,000 engagements as of publication. For comparison, The New York Times’ second most-engaging story from the same period got about 7,000 less engagements, according to BuzzSumo. YourNewsWire’s article, published in January, cites a fake quote from a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention official claiming that the flu shot is causing an outbreak of the disease.
Snopes debunked the story on Jan. 17 (after Facebook made it easier to flag a story), but Poynter was still able to share (and then promptly delete) it on Facebook.
When Poynter clicked the more info icon, a test that Facebook launched in October to give people more context about publishers in their News Feed, it showed where else people had shared the story and identified The People’s Voice, a page for the holding company that became the original curation of YourNewsWire. It had more than 800,000 likes as of publication.
The page’s reach is further bolstered by large followings for YourNewsWire, a man who goes by the name of Baxter Dmitry (a frequent author for the site) and Sean Adl-Tabatabai (the site’s co-founder). All the pages and profiles have nearly 1 million followers combined.
Poynter asked Snopes why so many of its debunks of YourNewsWire stories didn’t correspond with flags on Facebook. Co-founder and CEO David Mikkelson said it’s essentially too much work to input them all into the company’s system.
“In short, the third-party fact-checking partnership with Facebook depends upon partners' manually entering content into a dashboard that Facebook provides,” he said in an email. “This current procedure, coupled with our limited resources, means that not all fact checks published by Snopes.com end up being reported to Facebook.”
Tessa Lyons, a product manager at Facebook who was shown parts of Poynter’s analysis before publication, said fact-checkers’ difficulty with manually logging each of their debunks will hopefully be addressed by the injection of the ClaimReview markup to the company’s product, which she announced last month at the Global Fact-Checking Summit in Rome.
“We have had an issue where we’ve seen fact-checkers will debunk things on their websites and not enter them into our tool,” Lyons told Poynter. “(ClaimReview) will really help us ensure that we’re not missing out on debunks that our partners have done.”
Still, implementing that feature universally has proved to be hard for Facebook.
“One of the challenges is that not all the partners are using ClaimReview, and they don’t always use ClaimReview in a way that’s consistent with how our product works,” Lyons said. “For example, they can label satire as false. With our product, that’s a challenge because we’re not trying to demote The Onion or The Babylon Bee.”
At the same time, InfoWars has seen a different trend than YourNewsWire.
Between 2016 and 2017, the site — whose page is verified and has more than 900,000 likes on Facebook, but usually receives far less engagements than YourNewsWire — has seen its Facebook engagements decrease by more than 40 percent while publishing about 15 percent fewer articles. The change between the first seven months of 2016 and this year is less dramatic, with the site losing only about 10 percent of its engagements despite publishing more than 10,000 fewer stories.
However, InfoWars’ decline and stagnation in total Facebook engagements has been followed by more recent growth. While its best month was during the U.S. election in November 2016, it’s followed closely by June and July 2018. None of the fact-checkers Poynter analyzed debunked an InfoWars story in those months.
“If I were InfoWars, I would send this to my stockholders,” said David Rand, an associate professor of psychology at Yale University who frequently studies misinformation on Facebook and was shown Poynter’s analysis before publication. “In the past couple of months they’ve been killing it.”
Poynter asked Snopes and PolitiFact what they thought of both YourNewsWire and InfoWars’ reach but both said their work stands for itself.
InfoWars’ most popular post of the past six months was published just a few weeks ago, amassing nearly 60,000 engagements as of publication (it hadn’t been fact-checked as of publication). Between August 2016 and February 2017, the site’s most popular post had a little more than 200,000 engagements as of publication — and the only posts to get more than 100,000 engagements on Facebook in the past two years came within a week of the 2016 U.S. election, according to BuzzSumo.
It’s tempting to say that YourNewsWire’s recent engagement has fared worse than InfoWars’. As of publication, several of its stories hadn't made it past 100,000 engagements. And looking at the median distribution of its engagement — rather than the sum — it looks like the page has suffered a pretty big hit since 2016.
But at the same time, one story published last week had nearly 450,000 engagements as of publication. Another published in late May had amassed about the same engagement — not as much as the January story, but still nothing to laugh at. No fact-checkers covered that one.
Rand told Poynter in a follow-up email that those outlying posts have a pretty big effect on how many people end up seeing stories published by pages like YourNewsWire.
“There has been a pretty dramatic decline in Facebook engagements with the typical YourNewsWire post (as indicated by the decrease in the monthly median),” he said. “But critically, this has not translated into a meaningful decline in the total amount of engagement YourNewsWire has been getting on Facebook because it's not the typical post that matters — instead, its the relatively few outlier posts that go viral and get a ton of engagement.”
Is Facebook’s strategy working?
Facebook has been building up to sharing more data about its anti-misinformation efforts.
At Global Fact, Facebook’s Tessa Lyons announced several updates to the initiative. Still, aside from a leaked letter published by BuzzFeed News in October, the company hasn’t shared much in the way of how flagging stories affects their distribution on Facebook. So Poynter built on its analysis of YourNewsWire to find out.
When comparing the average Facebook engagements for all flagged YourNewsWire posts in 2018 and those for the site’s 10 most-engaging stories, it’s clear that — when fact-checkers actually do submit a debunk in the platform’s system — the fake news story has a lower reach. According to Poynter’s analysis, flagged posts have about 76 percent less average engagement than YourNewsWire’s most engaging posts.
In short: When Facebook’s system works, it works. But timing is everything.
One YourNewsWire story debunked by PolitiFact 12 days after its publication had more than 200,000 engagements, according to BuzzSumo. The story was the fifth most-engaging story of the month for the site as of publication.
“I can tell you from our research that the majority of engagement happens within the first seven days after publication,” said Eric deLima Rubb, manager of growth and customer success at BuzzSumo, in an email to Poynter.
With only one flagged post so far in 2018, InfoWars didn’t have a big enough sample for Poynter to analyze.
These are ad hoc, incomplete measurements that don’t take into account how the reach of a story changes after it’s debunked and flagged on Facebook (BuzzSumo doesn’t let you analyze the reach of a specific URL between two dates) — and journalists won’t know more until academics finish studying the dataset that Facebook has released. But these examples call into question the tech company’s ability to efficiently scale fact checks to the biggest fake news hits, and thereby punish the pages that publish them.
“We did make a decision to go after posts and not pages because we think it’s the best way to build cases against pages while mitigating the potential for bias and concentrated risk,” Lyons said. “I say all the time: If we’re just going after individual pieces of content, we’re playing a losing game of whack-a-mole. We have to ensure that our system is addressing that and taking those individual stories and using them against pages.”
“What we’ve seen is that page demotion is one of our most effective tools for reducing the spread of misinformation.”
In Rome, Lyons said Facebook would start taking additional actions against misinforming pages, including using signals from fact-checkers work to identify new ones. She told Poynter that demonetizing and limiting the reach of pages has been a successful piece of the project, but it’s still unclear to what extent the company is able to enforce those policies uniformly.
Poynter reached out to YourNewsWire via email with questions about its reach and ability to advertise, but it declined to comment, saying Poynter represents “a threat to freedom of speech and democracy” and that I’m a “cog in the machine.” Poynter reached out to InfoWars via email with questions about its reach and ability to advertise but had not heard back as of publication.
Facebook previously told Poynter in an email that it couldn’t share any information about whether pages like YourNewsWire and InfoWars’ advertising abilities had been restricted or not, citing privacy concerns.
At the same time, some misinforming pages with similar publishing scale as YourNewsWire have seen their advertising capabilities taken away — and it’s affecting their bottom line.
For infamous hoaxer Christopher Blair, the ability to monetize Facebook posts linking to his sites like The Last Line of Defense has been completely stripped. He previously told The Boston Globe that media accounts regularly overstated how much money he made from viral posts, but a hit story might have been “enough to buy a new couch.”
“We have no reach on links to any site, liberal, conservative or otherwise, which means we have no revenue,” said John Prager, a longtime collaborator of Blair’s and a writer for the left-leaning site Addicting Info, in a message to Poynter. “Liberal blogging was nice and we made good money. LLOD was a fluke we knew would die. We do what we do now for free and for fun and because we believe. It's been like this since about January.”
Blair has long attracted the ire of fact-checking organizations like Snopes and PolitiFact, and been the subject of controversies over what qualifies as satire on Facebook. Now his main page has largely pivoted to publishing images and memes.
Meanwhile, InfoWars and YourNewsWire have had different luck. Not only have they not abandoned publishing stories on Facebook, but they continue to get pretty serious engagement on them — in spite of the company’s fact-checking program.
With that in mind, Rand said it seems that Facebook should increasingly consider more robust ways to go after misinforming sources instead of individual posts.
“These observations highlight the challenge inherent in article-level approaches to fighting misinformation — even if you successfully suppress most articles, it basically doesn’t mean anything so long as the comparatively few viral articles sneak through,” he said. “Instead, I think source-level approaches (like Facebook’s trust survey) seem much more promising to me.”
Editor's note: This story has been updated with the latest most-engaging story from YourNewsWire of the past month.