Study: Analysis of top Facebook pages covering American political news

Study: Analysis of top Facebook pages covering American political news

Study of 463 leading Facebook pages shows that partisan pages have roughly equal engagement, but right-wing pages drastically outnumber left-wing pages

››› ››› NATALIE MARTINEZ

A Media Matters study of engagement, measured by interactions over a six-month period, on Facebook pages that regularly post content about American political news found that right-leaning Facebook pages had virtually identical engagement to left-leaning pages and received more engagement than other political pages.

Toplines

  • Partisan pages had roughly equal engagement, and they had more engagement than nonpartisan pages: Right-leaning and left-leaning Facebook pages had virtually identical average interaction rates -- measurements of a page's engagement -- at .18 percent and .17 percent, respectively, and nonaligned pages had the lowest interaction rates at .08 percent.

  • Right-leaning pages in total have a bigger presence on Facebook: Right-leaning Facebook pages had a higher total number of interactions than left-leaning Facebook pages. Right-leaning pages had 23 percent more total interactions than nonaligned pages and 51 percent more total interactions than left-leaning pages. Images shared by right-leaning pages -- including memes that frequently include false and bigoted messages -- were by far the highest performing content on the Facebook pages examined.

Executive Summary

Media Matters conducted an extensive six-month study into alleged conservative censorship on Facebook and found no evidence that conservative content is being censored on Facebook or that it is not reaching a large audience.

Shortly after Facebook's early January announcement that it was changing its algorithm to prioritize news shared by friends in users’ feeds over news shared by publishers, conservative media outlets and figures renewed attacks on the tech platform for supposedly censoring conservative content. Even though there was no proof that Facebook ever silenced conservative voices, the hysteria around this alleged censorship spurred multiple congressional hearings on Capitol Hill, and Facebook hired lobbyist Jon Kyl, a former Republican senator for Arizona, to lead a review into the matter.

In this study, Media Matters identified 463 Facebook pages that met three criteria:

  1. Each page had more than 500,000 page likes.

  2. Each page regularly posted content dealing with American political news.

  3. Each page posted content at least five times a week every week of the study.

We analyzed data from these pages, week by week, between January 1, 2018, and July 1, 2018, to observe trends in post interactions (reactions, comments, and shares) and page likes.

We found that right-leaning and left-leaning pages had virtually identical interaction rates per post, right-leaning pages had a higher total number of interactions on Facebook, and image-based posts from conservative pages considerably outperformed all other content from progressive and nonaligned pages (which are not aligned with a political ideology).

Key findings

Right-leaning pages and left-leaning pages had virtually identical average interaction rates (.18 percent and .17 percent, respectively), and nonaligned pages had the lowest average interaction rates (.08 percent).Interaction rates are calculated by dividing the total number of interactions (reactions, comments, and shares) per post on an individual page by the number of likes the page has. Interaction rate data provides a proportional comparison point for the performance of a Facebook page by taking into account the size of the page and the frequency of its posting activity.

Right-leaning pages had 51 percent more total interactions than left-leaning pages. In collecting and reviewing pages for this study, Media Matters found only 111 pages that met our criteria and were coded as left-leaning, compared to 176 pages coded as right-leaning and 176 pages coded as nonaligned. Left-leaning pages combined averaged 40,070,773 weekly page interactions, while right-leaning pages combined averaged 60,444,049 weekly page interactions.

Right-leaning pages had a significantly higher number of interactions than pages that were not politically aligned. Right-leaning pages had just under 578,000 fewer page likes on average than the nonaligned pages. But right-leaning pages received a significantly higher number of interactions. Media Matters reviewed 176 right-leaning pages and 176 nonaligned pages and found the right-leaning pages combined averaged 60,444,049 weekly page interactions, while nonaligned pages combined averaged 48,996,795 weekly page interactions.

Total interactions do not align with aggregate page size. The aggregate size of nonaligned pages is the largest, with over 450 million page likes; still, their total interactions lag behind partisan pages. The overall size of the right-leaning pages far eclipses the overall size of the left-leaning pages in this study by over 75 million page likes. Right-leaning content is distributed among more pages, which creates a smaller average page size, but also allows for more post optimization. Media Matters has previously studied how right-leaning pages function as a network to promote each other and gain more interactions. These factors have resulted in more total interactions for right-leaning pages than other pages.

Images shared by right-leaning pages were the highest performing posts in our data set. The average interaction rate for photos posted by right-leaning pages was .31 percent. The average interaction rate for photos posted by left-leaning pages was .21 percent. Right-leaning pages and left-leaning pages had overall average interaction rates per page of .18 percent and .17 percent, respectively, while nonaligned pages had an average interaction rate of .08 percent per page. Right-leaning pages reviewed in this study included political meme pages which Media Matters has previously identified as sources of racist propaganda and fake news.

Right-leaning and left-leaning pages witnessed a similar increase in page likes during the study period. Over the six-month period, page likes for left-leaning pages increased by 2.43 percent and page likes for right-leaning pages went up by 2.31 percent. Nonaligned pages saw slightly higher growth rates; their page likes increased by 4.24 percent.

Methodology

Media Matters compiled a list of Facebook pages that pertained to news and media outlets, media figures, politicians, political parties, and issue-focused advocacy groups. We included in our study those pages that had over 500,000 page likes.

Pages were coded by two researchers and reconciled by a third for two factors: (1) content related to political news and (2) ideological alignment (left-leaning, right-leaning, nonaligned, or “other”). Pages that regularly focused on news about American politics were coded as political. Pages that did not post news about American politics were coded as apolitical. The ideological alignment of a page was determined by a page’s name, information in the “About” section, and posts. 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.) were coded as left-leaning. Pages which expressed support for Trump or focused on issues primarily aimed at conservatives (e.g., restricting abortion rights, downplaying gun violence, etc.) were coded as right-leaning. All pages for right-wing and left-wing media outlets were automatically coded as right-leaning or left-leaning, respectively. Pages that did not have an ideological leaning in their content were coded as nonaligned. If there was doubt about whether to code a page as nonaligned or as left-leaning, the page was coded as left-leaning. Pages were coded 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.

Pages that were coded as apolitical were excluded from the study. There were four pages with political content coded as “other,” and they were also excluded due to the small size of the sample.

Media Matters obtained data on each page’s interactions, interaction rates, postings, and page growth in one-week intervals (Monday-Sunday) over a 26-week period, beginning the week of January 1, 2018, and ending the week of June 25, 2018. Any page that did not post at least five times a week every single week during our study period was eliminated from the study. The resulting number of pages reviewed by political alignment were: 176 right-leaning pages, 176 nonaligned pages, and 111 left-leaning pages.

Alex Kaplan and Melissa Ryan contributed research to this study. Charts by Melissa Joskow. This post has been updated for clarity.

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