Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg recently criticized the Trump administration’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, calling it “really disappointing.” But Zuckerberg’s comments come as Facebook allows misleading posts from President Donald Trump to lead the discussion about COVID-19 among right-leaning Facebook pages, with Trump accounting for half of the 10 posts about COVID-19 with the most engagement from February through May.
During an interview with National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease Director Dr. Anthony Fauci on July 16, Zuckerberg seemingly criticized President Donald Trump and his administration’s handling of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Zuckerberg said that “our government and this administration have been considerably less effective in handling [the pandemic]” than those of other countries and described the administration’s response as “really disappointing.”
It is really disappointing that we still don’t have adequate testing, that the credibility of our top scientists, like yourself and the CDC, are being undermined, and, until recently, that parts of the administration were calling into question whether people should even follow basic best practices like wearing masks.
Zuckerberg’s comments ring hollow, however, when contrasted with Facebook’s repeated failures to stop the spread of misinformation about COVID-19, especially as Trump earns hundreds of thousands of interactions (reactions, comments, shares) on his Facebook posts related to the pandemic. And his posts lead the discussion among right-leaning Facebook pages on key issues related to the coronavirus, such as reopening schools and mail-in voting.
In a new study, Media Matters found over 182,000 posts from right-leaning Facebook pages about the COVID-19 pandemic made between February 1, 2020, and May 31, 2020. These posts earned over 482 million interactions on Facebook.
Notably, posts from Trump account for 296 of the more than 182,000 Facebook posts about COVID-19 from right-leaning pages during the time frame studied. And they earned more than 32.4 million interactions -- or nearly 7% of the total engagement earned on posts from right-leaning pages. Trump also accounts for half of the top 10 posts about COVID-19 that were reviewed. In these posts, each of which has earned over 500,000 interactions on Facebook, the president promotes an unproven treatment, calls for the country to be reopened despite the pandemic, and attacks his critics, among other things.
Two additional posts from the top 10 posts Media Matters reviewed also promote the administration’s messaging: one from Fox News, which shares a live video of Trump’s Oval Office speech about the pandemic, and the other from Trump’s son Donald Trump Jr., who promotes a conspiracy theory about the origins of the virus.
Zuckerberg’s criticism of the administration’s response falls flat when Trump leads so much of the discussion about COVID-19 among right-leaning pages, particularly when his posts consistently promote misleading talking points. That’s especially true given that Trump is supported by a right-wing Facebook ecosystem that plays a vital role in pushing misinformation and right-wing talking points across the platform.
Media Matters compiled a list of 1,223 Facebook pages that pertain to news and media outlets, media figures, politicians, political parties, and issue-focused advocacy groups. Each page in this study also had over 500,000 page likes, had primarily English-language content, and posted content related to U.S. political news.
Two researchers independently coded pages, and a third researcher independently reconciled conflicts between the two datasets. Researchers coded pages for two factors: (1) content related to political news, and (2) ideological alignment (left-leaning, right-leaning, nonaligned, or “other”). We reviewed each page individually, and we only included pages that regularly focused on news about American politics.
We determined the ideological alignment of a page by a page’s name, information in the “About” section, the page owner, and posts. We coded pages that expressed opposition to President Donald Trump or focused on issues primarily aimed at liberals (e.g., protecting abortion rights, calling for action against gun violence, etc.) as left-leaning.
We coded pages that expressed support for Trump or focused on issues primarily aimed at conservatives (e.g., restricting abortion rights, downplaying gun violence, etc.) as right-leaning.
We coded all pages for right-wing and left-wing media outlets as right-leaning or left-leaning, respectively. We coded pages that did not have an ideological leaning in their content as nonaligned.
If we had any doubt about whether to code a page as nonaligned or left-leaning, we erred on coding the page as left-leaning. We coded pages as “other” if they did not fit in any of the above categories or if they contained a mix of left-leaning and right-leaning content. We excluded these pages from the final dataset.
The resulting list of pages were 384 right-leaning pages, 377 nonaligned pages, 435 left-leaning pages, and 27 “other” pages.
We compiled and reviewed the data, including total interactions -- reactions, comments, and shares -- of Facebook posts that mentioned COVID-19 and were shared by our list of 384 right-leaning Facebook pages between 12 a.m. EDT on February 1 and 11:59 p.m. EDT on May 31, 2020.
We defined posts that mentioned COVID-19 as any post that had any of the following terms in the post’s message or in the included link, article headline, or article description: covid, “covid-19,” “covid 19,” coronavirus, reopen, “re-open,” “re open,” pandemic, outbreak, “stay at home,” “stay-at-home,” “executive order,” quarantine, “shelter-in-place,” “shelter in place,” endemic, epidemic, hospital, hospitals, ventilator, ventilators, respirator, respirators, mask, masks, “face mask,” “social distancing,” “social distance,” or virus.
The resulting dataset included 182,489 posts from 370 right-leaning pages.