How Facebook's algorithm devalues local reporting

Facebook, whether you like it or not, is one of the most important sources for news. Thirty-six percent of adults in the United States "say they regularly get news from Facebook," according to a survey by Pew Research last September. Facebook, of course, doesn't produce any news. It distributes news from other sources through its newsfeed. What sources show up in the Facebook newsfeed has a big impact on what millions of Americans know about the country and the world. 

No news website does better on Facebook than The Daily Wire, which was founded by right-wing pundit Ben Shapiro. Despite having only a few dozen employees and producing little original reporting, The Daily Wire attracts far more engagement on Facebook than media outlets like The New York Times, which employs thousands of journalists and regularly breaks major stories.

Engagement on Facebook — which includes shares, comments, and likes — correlates to how much referral traffic a media outlet receives because the Facebook algorithm rewards posts with higher engagement. Facebook disputes that engagement is a good proxy for referral traffic but does not release data on referral traffic itself. 

In May, stories from The Daily Wire attracted 70.9 million engagements, while The New York Times' stories attracted 15.3 million engagements, according to the social media analytics firm NewsWhip

While stories from The Daily Wire attracted more than four times the engagement of The New York Times stories, that actually understates The Daily Wire's dominance. In May, The Daily Wire produced just 1,477 stories, compared to 5,779 stories from The New York Times. That means that The Daily Wire averaged 48,027 engagements per story, while The New York Times received an average of just 2,663.

How does The Daily Wire achieve its extraordinary success on Facebook? To help unravel this mystery, Popular Information reviewed the top 70 stories from The Daily Wire, measured by total Facebook engagement, in the 30 days between May 18 and June 18. Facebook engagement for these stories was measured using Crowdtangle, an analytics service owned by Facebook.

Nearly all of the top stories from The Daily Wire were aggregations of another news report, a tweet, or a video. Isolating the 27 top-performing Daily Wire stories that aggregated another news report, a clear pattern emerges. The Daily Wire takes another outlet's reporting, excerpts it, and gives it an inaccurate or incendiary spin. 

For this minimal effort, The Daily Wire is rewarded with massive engagement on Facebook while the source of the journalism, quite often a local media outlet, gets a tiny fraction of engagement. Beyond distorting the content of the news, this dynamic has real financial consequences. The Daily Wire gets showered with traffic and the attendant advertising revenue while local outlets, who have to pay for the costs of the reporting, get practically nothing. 

On May 20, for example, the Chicago Tribune reported that rank-and-file cops in the Chicago Police Department "issued a no-confidence vote against police Superintendent David Brown and Mayor Lori Lightfoot during a meeting held by the city’s largest police union." The story was written by Jeremy Gorner, a beat reporter focused on covering the Chicago Police Department. The Chicago Tribune story received a total of 870 engagements on Facebook. A similar story was reported by the local Chicago CBS affiliate. It received 70 engagements on Facebook. 

Two days later, The Daily Wire published an article with the headline "'Slap In The Face': Chicago Cops Vote 'No-Confidence' In Mayor Lori Lightfoot, Police Chief David Brown." The piece contains no original reporting and is just a mashup of the Chicago Tribune and Chicago CBS stories. Further, the headline is misleading. It suggests that the no-confidence vote was a "slap in the face." When actually, the "slap in the face" is a quote from the police union president and refers to the decision to cancel the "annual St. Jude Memorial March for fallen officers due to the pandemic." The Daily Wire article received 359,419 engagements on Facebook. 

There are many challenges to profitably running a local media company. But investing in local reporting only to see your work aggregated and monetized by sites like The Daily Wire is not a formula for economic success. The number of reporters working for Tribune Publishing, the parent company of the Chicago Tribune, went from 4,114 at the end of 2019 to 2,865 employees at the end of 2020. The company was recently purchased by the hedge fund Alden Global Capital and every newsroom employee will be offered a buyout.

This pattern for the Chicago Tribune article was repeated across the universe of articles analyzed by Popular Information. On average, The Daily Wire articles received 179,974 Facebook engagements while the original reporting aggregated by the Daily Wire received 15,433. 

In response to a request for comment, Facebook said that it has invested $600 million to support the news industry, including millions in grants to local newsrooms. Facebook did not directly address the success of The Daily Wire and other aggregators on its platform. 

Local journalists do the reporting. The Daily Wire gets the traffic.

Using CrowdTangle analytics data, Popular Information discovered that there is often a sizable discrepancy in engagement between stories published by The Daily Wire versus when they are published by their original sources. Previously, Facebook has tried to downplay the relevance of engagement metrics by insisting that “how people engage with content...should not be confused with how many people actually see it on Facebook.” Still, knowing the total sum of reactions, comments, and shares that are related to a specific URL is useful for gauging how far-reaching a post is.

On June 1, for example, Fox 13 News published a story on how residents in Florida will need to begin submitting at least five job applications each week to receive unemployment benefits. According to CrowdTangle, the article only received 11,590 engagements. On June 2, The Daily Wire published the same story and cited Fox 13 News. The Daily Wire article summarizes the Fox 13 News article. The only new addition is a quote from Florida Governor Ron DeSantis. Despite this, The Daily Wire article had received at least 232,427 engagements.

A similar pattern occurred a few weeks later in June. On June 12, AL.com, a local news site operated by Alabama Media Group, reported on the alleged suicide of Christopher Sign. The headline of the article was “Christopher Sign, Birmingham TV anchor and former Alabama football player, dead in apparent suicide.” In the piece, the author, Carol Robinson, shares some basic details on Sign’s background and briefly notes that he “broke the story of the June 2016 secret tarmac meeting between former President Bill Clinton and then-Attorney General Loretta Lynch.” 

A day later, on June 13, The Daily Wire picked up the story and published an article titled “Police Investigating The ‘Suicide’ of a Reporter Who Broke Clinton Tarmac Story.” In this recount of Sign’s death, the author, Ryan Saavedra, focuses almost exclusively on Sign's reporting of the Clinton-Lynch tarmac meeting. Saavedra ends the piece by stating that Sign had told Fox News he had received death threats over his reporting. The piece implies, without any actual evidence, that Sign may have been murdered.

By June 18, The Daily Wire story on Sign’s death had accrued at least 395,215 engagements on Facebook, according to CrowdTangle. Meanwhile, AL.com’s piece only managed to draw 32,718 engagements. 

The messaging versus the algorithm

Facebook aggressively markets itself as a supporter of journalism — particularly local journalism. In 2019, Facebook announced that it would "invest $300 million in news programs, partnerships, and content" over the next three years. How most of that money would be spent, however, was not specified. The announcement came a year after Google pledged to invest the same amount of money over the same period of time. 

At the beginning of the pandemic, Facebook announced that it would spend "an additional $100 million investment to support the news industry" — although 75% of the support was provided in marketing spending by Facebook. Facebook says it has "an opportunity, and a responsibility, to help local news organizations grow and thrive."

Facebook also offers resources that purport to help news organizations become self-sufficient, including a document called "10 steps to build a thriving reader revenue business." Media organizations, Facebook says, should ask themselves these questions:

Are you delivering real, differentiated value from other competitors in your area? In the moments when your community needs you most, what's your playbook for "going big" to make a big impact on the community you serve?

While Facebook encourages outlets to serve their community, it provides much larger rewards to publications like The Daily Wire that do little to no reporting but push ideological buttons. Other right-wing publications that pursue a similar strategy and rank in the top 10 publications on Facebook including The Western Journal and The Blaze.

Correction: The original version of this article said 75% of the support Facebook provided to local publishers in March 2020 was in Facebook ad credits. This was incorrect. The support was in marketing spending by Facebook in individual publications. We regret the error.