How an obscure far-right website with 3 employees dominates Facebook in 2022
Most people have probably never heard of the website Conservative Brief. It employs just three writers and it does not produce any original reporting. Nearly all of its articles are aggregations of Tweets, YouTube videos, or other media websites, presented with a far-right spin. Recent headlines include "More Damning Evidence Surfaces Against Hillary Clinton in Durham Probe," and "Trump Gives Love To Mike Lindell, Showers Him With Praise For The Good He Has Done." Conservative Brief has been cited repeatedly for publishing false claims.
Yet Conservative Brief has emerged in 2022 as a dominant force on Facebook. It has recently become more popular on the platform than the New York Times and the Washington Post.
How did this happen? Popular Information has uncovered evidence strongly suggesting that Conservative Brief is paying a network of large Facebook pages, including several controlled by prominent conservative political personalities, to post its content. This conduct, if it is indeed occurring, is in direct violation of Facebook's rules.
Conservative Brief's engagement on Facebook has exploded over the last year. According to data provided to Popular Information by NewsWhip, an independent social media analytics firm, in February 2021, Conservative Brief attracted about 2,500 engagements (a combination of likes, reactions, comments, and shares) per article. Today, each article posted by Conservative Brief attracts well over 30,000 engagements.
Conservative Brief publishes a tiny fraction of the number of articles produced by the New York Times and Washington Post — newsrooms that employ thousands of journalists producing original work. Nevertheless, Conservative Brief now receives more total engagement on a weekly basis than either the New York Times or the Washington Post, according to NewsWhip data.
Crowdtangle, an analytics service owned by Facebook, confirms this finding. According to Crowdtangle data, Conservative Brief received more engagement than the New York Times and the Washington Post in the ten days ending February 19, 2022.
The trends for the New York Times and the Washington Post in the chart above reflect what's happened to news content overall on Facebook. Facebook has deprioritized news on the platform and nearly every publication has steadily seen less engagement for its content. Facebook even recently renamed its NewsFeed to Feed to reflect the change in emphasis. But Conservative Brief, as the data shows, has been able to buck the trend.
Conservative Brief does not even have its own Facebook page. (It previously operated a page at facebook.com/conservativebriefusa but that page is no longer online.) Meanwhile, the main Washington Post Facebook page has 6.6 million followers and the main New York Times Facebook page has 17 million. Yet Conservative Brief is still able to attract more engagement overall.
Here is how it works: Each time the Conservative Brief publishes an article, a link to the article is posted by an extensive network of conservative Facebook pages with large audiences.
For example, on February 18, 2022, Conservative Brief published a piece with this headline: "Canadian Government Stops Mike Lindell From Entering, But He Has Another Plan." (Spoiler: Lindell said he was going to deliver pillows to Canadian truckers by parachute.) The article included a coupon code to purchase slippers from Lindell at a 50% discount. The same day this article was published to a slew of large conservative Facebook pages, sometimes with identical text.
The network includes prominent conservative activists with large Facebook followings, including conspiracy theorist and polemicist Dinesh D'Souza (2.7 million followers), anti-Islam activist Brigitte Gabriel (1 million), right-wing author Nick Adams (1 million), conservative wunderkind CJ Pearson (663K followers), controversial former sheriff David Clarke (290K), and former Trump attorney Jenna Ellis (133K).
The same Facebook pages post links to articles from Conservative Brief, often multiple times per day. D’Souza’s Facebook page, for example, posted a dozen links to Conservative Brief on Tuesday.
Why are all these Facebook Pages posting links to Conservative Brief? Each time these pages share content from Conservative Brief, they append something called a UTM code. A UTM code is a way for publishers to know precisely how much traffic comes from a particular source. For example, when Dinesh D'Souza shared the link to the story above on Facebook, it looked like this:
Conservative Brief and other websites keep track of how many people are visiting each article through special software — most commonly Google Analytics. Normally, if Dinesh D'Souza posted a Conservative Brief link on its Facebook page, the people who clicked would show up in the Conservative Brief's Google Analytics dashboard as referral traffic from Facebook. In other words, the traffic from D’Souza’s Facebook page would be lumped in with all the other traffic from Facebook.
By appending the UTM code, D'Souza is enabling Conservative Brief to isolate the traffic D'Souza is sending to Conservative Brief. D'Souza has no access to the information, however. So absent a relationship with Conservative Brief, appending the UTM code is pointless. But the UTM code would allow Conservative Brief to track and potentially pay D'Souza for sending Conservative Brief traffic through Facebook.
The fact that all of these Facebook pages use UTM codes when posting Conservative Brief links strongly suggests that Conservative Brief is paying for traffic. That would explicitly violate Facebook rules which state that Facebook Pages "cannot accept anything of value to post content that does not feature themselves or that they were not involved in creating."
It would not be the first time that Conservative Brief has broken Facebook's rules to artificially inflate its popularity on the platform.
Gaming the system, Part II
In September 2020, Popular Information reported that a group of 20 large Facebook Pages was systematically sharing links from Conservative Brief with UTM codes. Facebook acknowledged that these Facebook pages were breaking the rules because, in response to a request for comment, the company said it would impose penalties on the pages involved.
"After an initial investigation, we found there’s enough evidence to merit a deeper review. While that's ongoing, we're taking enforcement action against the Pages posting this content," a Facebook spokesperson told Popular Information at the time.
Since then, many pages in the network identified in 2020 by Popular Information — including Take Back America, Red White Blue News, and Make America Even Greater — have been taken offline. Others have stopped posting content from Conservative Brief. A few are now listed as being owned by Conservative Brief's parent company, Aspe Media LLC.
But while the network that existed in September 2020 has collapsed, Conservative Brief's new network is far more powerful, propelling the site to new heights.
This time around, however, Facebook declined to comment. An email message sent to the contact listed on Conservative Brief's website was returned as undeliverable.
Following The Daily Wire playbook
In July 2020, a Popular Information investigation revealed that The Daily Wire, a right-wing website founded by Ben Shapiro, was paying for traffic. Facebook confirmed that The Daily Wire had a financial relationship with Mad World News, a notorious outlet that exploits fear and bigotry for profit. The Daily Wire was paying Mad World News to post links on five large Facebook pages controlled by Mad World News.
Mad World News was using UTM codes to share stories from The Daily Wire. In response to the rule violation, Facebook punished Mad World News but let off The Daily Wire with a warning.
"After further investigation, we’ve found that these Pages violate our policies against undisclosed paid relationships between publishers. Our enforcement typically focuses on the Page distributing the cross-promoted content, which is why we are temporarily demoting Mad World News. We are also warning Daily Wire and will demote them if we see this behavior continue," a Facebook spokesperson told Popular Information.
Carmine Sabia, a former writer for Mad World News, is currently the Editor-at-Large for Conservative Brief.
Over the last year, the Daily Wire's engagement per article has plummeted while Conservative Brief's engagement per article has increased substantially. According to NewsWhip data provided to Popular Information, the Conservative Brief has recently surpassed The Daily Wire on a per article basis:
The Daily Wire still attracts more engagement overall because it produces far more content. But this chart illustrates how skirting the Conservative Brief's tactics have allowed it to increase engagement while other outlets saw steady declines.
UPDATE: Florida Representative withdraws amendment requiring schools to out LGBTQ kids to their parents — even if it puts them in danger
Tuesday's newsletter focused on an amendment proposed by Florida Representative Joe Harding that would would require schools to out LGBTQ students, even in cases where school officials believe it would result in "abuse, abandonment, or neglect."
Popular Information's reporting on this issue went viral on Twitter.
On Tuesday, hours before the Florida House was scheduled to vote on Harding's proposal, he withdrew the amendment.
Harding attributed his decision to media coverage, saying "misrepresentation in reporting about the amendment was a distraction." An independent fact check found that Popular Information's reporting was accurate.
A final vote for on the underlying bill is expected on Thursday.