Molly Butler / Media Matters

Research/Study Research/Study

Facebook has a problem with sensational and misleading content despite VP Nick Clegg’s claims

Right-wing personalities Ben Shapiro and Dan Bongino earned hundreds of millions more interactions in 2020 and the beginning of 2021 than in previous years

Right-wing personalities who post sensational and misleading content continue to earn high engagement on Facebook, despite Vice President of Global Affairs Nick Clegg’s comments that “Facebook’s systems are not designed to reward provocative content.” In a new study, Media Matters found that Ben Shapiro and Dan Bongino, two right-wing figures who frequently post sensational stories and fearmongering or misleading content on Facebook, actually earned significantly more engagement in 2020 and 2021 than in previous years -- undermining Clegg’s claims. 

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  • On March 31, Clegg wrote a response to allegations that “social media fuels polarization, exploits human weaknesses and insecurities, and creates echo chambers where everyone gets their own slice of reality, eroding the public sphere and the understanding of common facts.” In the article, Clegg discussed Facebook’s ranking system and claimed that Facebook actually downranks sensational content and pages that consistently post this content.

  • Central to many of the charges by Facebook’s critics is the idea that its algorithmic systems actively encourage the sharing of sensational content and are designed to keep people scrolling endlessly. Of course, on a platform built around people sharing things they are interested in or moved by, content that provokes strong emotions is invariably going to be shared. At one level, the fact that people respond to sensational content isn’t new. As generations of newspaper sub-editors can attest, emotive language and arresting imagery grab people’s attention and engage them. It’s human nature. But Facebook’s systems are not designed to reward provocative content. In fact, key parts of those systems are designed to do just the opposite.

    Facebook reduces the distribution of many types of content — meaning that content appears lower in your News Feed — because they are sensational, misleading, gratuitously solicit engagement, or are found to be false by our independent fact checking partners. For example, Facebook demotes clickbait (headlines that are misleading or exaggerated), highly sensational health claims (like those promoting “miracle cures”), and engagement bait (posts that explicitly seek to get users to engage with them).

    Facebook’s approach goes beyond addressing sensational and misleading content post-by-post. When Pages and Groups repeatedly post some of these types of content to Facebook, like clickbait or misinformation, Facebook reduces the distribution of all the posts from those Pages and Groups. And where websites generate an extremely disproportionate amount of their traffic from Facebook relative to the rest of the internet, which can be indicative of a pattern of posting more sensational or spammy content, Facebook likewise demotes all the posts from the Pages run by those websites.

  • Despite Clegg’s claims, posts that sensationalize or fearmonger about stories often earn more engagement than other types of posts. On June 3, 2020, the top English-language post from a Facebook page was a video from right-wing figure Candace Owens in which she disparages George Floyd and says that the Black community is “unique” because its members are “the only people that fight and scream and demand support and justice for the people in our community that are up to no good.” Media Matters previously reported that this video earned more interactions than any other post from political pages that posted about last spring’s protests against police brutality following Floyd's killing, and it has since been viewed more than 95 million times.

    Additionally, Media Matters has repeatedly found that right-leaning pages, which frequently fearmonger and post misleading content, consistently earn equal or more engagement than left-leaning or ideologically nonaligned pages. In a January study, Media Matters reported that right-leaning pages earned nearly 9 billion interactions on roughly 2.3 million posts between January 1 and December 15, 2020, which accounted for 45% of total interactions from political pages. It would not be without precedent for Facebook to allege systems are balanced while treating sensational right-leaning content differently, as there are numerous examples of Facebook capitulating to conservatives and giving right-wing pages preferential treatment, particularly The Daily Wire.

    According to Clegg, Facebook demotes all posts from pages run by websites that “generate an extremely disproportionate amount of their traffic from Facebook relative to the rest of the internet, which can be indicative of a pattern of posting more sensational or spammy content.” But right-wing personalities such as Ben Shapiro and Dan Bongino continue to get millions of interactions on posts from their Facebook pages, which often include sensational stories, fearmongering commentary, and misleading content from their respective websites. In fact, these pages earned significantly more engagement in 2020 and the first three months of 2021 than in 2017, 2018, and 2019 combined.

  • Total monthly interactions earned by Ben Shapiro and Dan Bongino on Facebook
  • Ben Shapiro

  • Ben Shapiro and his right-wing media outlet The Daily Wire thrive on Facebook, consistently earning high engagement on content which promotes right-wing narratives -- partly because both use a network of numerous Facebook pages to amplify material. Facebook has also contributed to The Daily Wire's success, allowing it to break the platform’s rules against using coordinated activity without repercussion and even reportedly changing the News Feed algorithm to benefit right-wing sources like the site.

    Using data from CrowdTangle, Media Matters analyzed over 114,000 posts from Shapiro’s page and found that these posts earned over 924 million interactions in roughly the last four years -- between January 1, 2017, and March 22, 2021. Notably, Shapiro’s engagement on Facebook in 2020 and the beginning of 2021 has significantly increased compared with other years, even though the content has been largely sensationalized or misleading. In fact, in 2020 he earned more than twice the engagement he had in 2019. This pattern continued in 2021, with Shapiro earning nearly 20,000 average interactions on his posts.

    Ben Shapiro's Facebook posts and engagement


     Total Posts

     Total Interactions

    Average interactions per post

    2017 15,000 86.4 million 5,800
    2018 26,000 143.2 million 5,400
    2019 31,000 150.5 million 4,900
    2020 35,000 393.7 million 11,300
    January - March 22, 2021 8,000 150.8 million 19,800
    2017 - 2021 114,000 924.6 million 8,100

    Shapiro’s engagement drastically increased during May-September 2020 and January-March 2021, peaking in August 2020 and February 2021. During these two months, Shapiro earned roughly 45.6 million and 62.0 million interactions, respectively, and over 87% of the posts linked to Daily Wire articles. During each of these peaks in engagement, his top posts frequently included a mix of sensationalized, misleading, and fearmongering content. 

  • For example, in August 2020, Shapiro’s top posts included one linking to a Daily Wire article that exploits the tragic death of a 5-year-old by claiming that “the national media doesn’t care that Cannon Hinnant died, and doesn’t want you to care, because he was white,” and a post with a link to a Daily Wire article that gives explicit details of former President Bill Clinton’s affair during his presidency in response to Clinton calling Trump’s Oval Office “chaos”:

    Ben Shapiro_facebook post_20200813

    Ben Shapiro_facebook post_20200818

  • In February 2021, Shapiro’s top posts included a complaint about “cancellation for being a conservative,” claiming that “Disney dumped one of its leading stars because she wouldn't toe the leftist line”; an anti-trans post that fearmongers about the inclusion of trans athletes; and a post claiming that “Hollywood elites have been dictating culture and insulting your values for far too long”:

    Ben Shapiro_facebook post_20210212

    Ben Shapiro_facebook post_20210225

    Ben Shapiro_facebook post_20210216

  • Dan Bongino

  • Right-wing media personality Dan Bongino’s Facebook page follows a similar pattern as Shapiro’s, with Bongino’s engagement drastically increasing in 2020 and 2021, according to Media Matters' review of CrowdTangle data. Bongino’s page earned over 351 million interactions in roughly the last four years -- between January 1, 2017, and March 22, 2021. In 2020, he earned more than 10 times the engagement of 2019. This pattern continued in 2021, with Bongino earning nearly 46,000 average interactions on his posts.

    Dan Bongino's Facebook posts and engagement


     Total Posts

     Total Interactions

    Average interactions per post

    2017 400 1.5 million 3,800
    2018 500 3.3 million 6,600
    2019 1,900 22.7 million 11,700
    2020 5,300 244.6 million 46,200
    January - March 22, 2021 1,700 79.4 million 45,700
    2017 - 2021 9,900 351.6 million 35,600
  • Bongino earned the most engagement in October 2020, with posts from his page racking up over 47.3 million interactions. The majority of these posts contain links to articles from his website, Bongino.com, or to Rumble, where he posts videos from his show. Top posts made during Bongino’s October 2020 engagement peak included a post calling NBC’s Savannah Guthrie “unhinged” and posts that linked to Bongino’s articles accusing Kamala Harris of doing “a lot of lying” and asking, “Are you sick of hearing celebrities talking about politics?"

    Dan Bongino_facebook post_20201008

    Dan Bongino_facebook post_20201015

    Dan Bongino_facebook post_20201016

  • The high engagement numbers Shapiro and Bongino racked up on Facebook between January 1, 2020, and March 22, 2021 -- over 868 million interactions combined -- undermine Clegg’s assertion that Facebook’s algorithm doesn’t reward provocative content.