Facebook: The Ultimate Bias Machine
By Benjamin Greene | January 24, 2018 Whether people like it or not, social media is America’s (biased) news source.
According to Pew, nearly two-thirds of Americans get their news from social media. Of the social platforms, Facebook—with a 45% share of the reach—is the largest. Surprisingly, young people under 29, who grew up with smartphones in their hands, aren’t the ones who turn to social media to learn the day's events. Instead, people between the ages of 30 and 49 are more likely to get their news from the various social platforms.
For large publishers trying to reach people, a medium such as Facebook is now akin to the front page of a newspaper: Space is limited, and decisions about what stories take precedence must be made. Facebook is different from all other news platforms, however, because stories will or will not appear not based on the publication’s decision, but on their popularity and how well they “spark conversation.” Although Mark Zuckerberg claims he will change the newsfeed soon, for the last several years, stories that attract more clicks, comments, and Facebook Reactions have taken priority in terms of what people see.
A Day in the Life of a Facebook User
Given the way newsfeeds work, they have become an easy place for lots of people to see the same articles with a particular ideological bent. To see if there were obvious bias and partisanship on display by the major news publications in real time, I looked at what people would get from both the left and right on social media for one day. I also wanted to see how the news of the day may be different depending on what pages people followed on Facebook. Weekends are peak days for social media, and Friday was a busy news day to review. I started by looking at the news from more than 10 publications and Facebook pages, but I found such stark contrast in two popular mainstream publications that this piece focuses on just them.
Not surprisingly, two of the biggest hitters on Facebook for traditional news sources are Fox News and The New York Times, with 15 million and 14 million followers, respectively. They both may be considered biased by opposing parties but are mainstream enough to reach independents and people from both sides of the aisle. However, the content they produced and the stories they didn’t cover capture how Facebook easily becomes an ideological echo chamber.
Coverage Bias on Facebook
They both posted consistently throughout the day, with Fox News posting nearly two times per hour and The New York Times posting a little more than once per hour on political-related topics. The impending government shutdown was big news for the day, but the two covered it to different degrees. Interestingly, Fox News covered it far more, having nearly two times the number of posts dedicated to the shutdown and closely related topics than The New York Times.
Perhaps more importantly, they covered the government shutdown distinctly differently. Fox News put more emphasis on Democrats’ responsibility, with quotes from Kellyanne Conway, Senator Tom Cotton, House Speaker Paul Ryan, Fox & Friends Host Michelle Malkin, and political commentators Diamond and Silk. It provided some contrasting quotes from liberal lawmakers Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. Either way, Fox played up the contentious nature of the government shutdown in a war of quotes coming mainly from the right. Fox News showed it could excite its base by both playing up who its followers see as the good guys and igniting anger with the what its followers may see—to put it in wrestling terms—as the heels.
One post in particular stood out: Fox News highlighted the argument that Democrats were hurting our service members with a quote from House Speaker Paul Ryan over a patriotic backdrop.
Although the G.O.P.’s Fake News awards might suggest otherwise, the New York Times was seemingly far less biased and much more analytical in its coverage. It spoke in more generalities, with the Senate—not just Senate Democrats or Republicans—blocking the House-spending bill. Even the visuals suggested a shared responsibility: a picture of Senate leadership clapping above a story about the shutdown vote showed both Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Democratic Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer.
With both sides clapping, The New York Times seemed to place blame on all of the Senate for the government shutdown.
That’s not to say there was no bias shown by the New York Times. In one story, it tied the shutdown to Trump’s comments about “shithole nations,” and when referencing the Democrats’ responsibility in the shutdown, it categorized them as holding onto small concessions, implying not only the strength of Democrats to fight for minor compromises but also the unwillingness of Republicans to bargain. Despite some isolated instances, often tied to editorial pieces, The New York Times did a superior job of being impartial in the words and photos used in its Facebook posts.
Gatekeeping Bias on Facebook
The New York Times bias really shone in what it didn’t cover. Fox News opened the day with a report about a FISA memo heralded by Republicans as confirmation of bias and a need to end Mueller’s investigation. It’s not that The New York Times didn’t cover the story on its website on Friday; it just didn’t disseminate that news over Facebook. Perhaps The New York Times didn’t see much to the story—it was called a partisan stunt in its one article about the memo. But their decision not to push it on Facebook captures the difference in what difference news outlets think are important. Fox News, meanwhile, posted two different times about the FISA memo on Friday not including a post late Thursday from Laura Ingraham that would have shown up in people’s newsfeeds early Friday. One outlet is wrong in this case. Either Fox didn’t need to cover it three times, or The New York Times should have at least mentioned it once.
There was also the annual March for Life anti-abortion rally in Washington D.C. on Friday that attracted thousands of pro-life activists. The 2018 march made a bit more news because it was the first time a sitting U.S. President directly addressed the rally. (Ronald Reagan and Bush Senior did it via phone or recording.) Vice President Mike Pence and House Speaker Paul Ryan also showed their support at the rally. Fox News did its best to play up the event, posting about it six times throughout the day; however, The New York Times did not make any reference to the rally on its Facebook page on Friday. Again, The New York Times did report on the March for Life on its website but did not share that story on Facebook. In this instance, it felts as if The New York Times was deliberately keeping the news from its followers—either because they didn’t think their followers would care or because they didn’t want their followers to know.
Where Fox News was good at building the hype around some stories, the New York Times chose to ignore them altogether. The discrepancy speaks to an important truth: Facebook is meant to generate excitement and interest in a media company’s work. Fox knows how to excite its followers. The New York Times appears less effective at accomplishing that goal.
Facebook’s Bias on What People See
Up until now, this analysis has treated both sources as if they’re equally likely to be seen and, therefore, influence people’s thinking. That’s not the case. If a person were to follow both The New York Times’ and Fox News’ Facebook pages and were to interact with them equally on similar topics, he or she would be more likely to see Fox News’ Facebook posts on Friday.
There’s a pretty simple technological explanation for this discrepancy. Facebook’s newsfeed is not an open-source algorithm, so there is no way to say for certain what would be displayed. However, here is what we can determine from what we do know: Fox News and The New York Times are major publications, and most likely, neither would be seen as more trustworthy than the other by Facebook. Outside of Facebook showing certain new stories to people based on their interests, Fox News’ posts would be more likely to show up in news feeds because they got far more Facebook Likes and Facebook Shares and, more importantly as of the new year, comments than the New York Times’ posts. This simple recipe for more interactions could lead to more of Fox News’ stories showing up more often.
The New York Times regularly got less than 1,000 Facebook Likes on its posts and had a median of 561 Facebook Reactions per post on Friday. Its biggest draw of the day was a post about a gay marriage at West Point with 17,000 Facebook Likes, 4,000 Facebook Loves, and more than 1,100 Facebook Shares. People who follow The New York Times would be more prone to see this story than any other, perhaps re-affirming liberal bias toward gay marriage in some people’s eyes. In this sense, it’s not just The New York Times that “creates bias.” It’s the readers, sharers, and commenters and the Facebook algorithms that prioritize those things.
Fox News, on the other hand, consistently received thousands of Facebook Reactions, Facebook Shares, and comments on its posts. It had a median of nearly 9,500 Reactions per post for the day, and its most popular post was a meme using a quote from Diamond and Silk about Democrats not properly addressing their constituents in the government shutdown. It got 59,000 Facebook Likes including 6,700 Facebook Loves and 24,000 Facebook Shares. This extreme popularity allows Fox News’ stories to appear higher and more often in followers’ newsfeeds even for the people don’t normally interact with Fox News’ Facebook page. This post stretches the scope of its posts’ reach to include more people who otherwise are not faithful followers of the its news.
In other words, if we accept all media has bias in what they cover and post, Fox News’ opinions reach further, thanks in large part to Facebook, America’s real media machine.
There is no denying that even on a controversial post about gay marriage in the military, The New York Times received far fewer Likes, Shares, and comments than Fox News’ posts.
Both Fox News’ and The New York Times’ Facebook pages exhibited a political slant last Friday, just in very different ways.
Fox News’ Facebook page was like a well-oiled machine firing on all cylinders. It knew how to take the news of the day and use it to excite its base. Its coverage was borderline propaganda, but it was effective, bringing fervor to its followers with both what they wanted to hear and what they didn’t want to hear. The problem is the line between journalism and editorial opinion was nearly completely lost.
The New York Times—maybe due to Trump’s bashings about bias or its own desire to uphold integrity—was more even-keeled in its reporting and more closely followed the principles of journalism, but it revealed bias in what it covered on Facebook and how it disseminated information for that day. In the digital landscape, it is not just what you say but how you get people to hear what you’ve said. Posting a story online and not sharing it on Facebook, through e-mail, or some other means in the 21st-century is equivalent to burying a story in the back of a newspaper in the 20th century. If someone follows the nation’s largest newspaper, they should hear about all the major news items of the day. The New York Times’ approach may not have purposely been used to evoke a response, but it also didn’t fully report the news to the millions of people who exclusively use social media to get their news on Friday.
Facebook also played a role, but based on this analysis, its role was different that popular perceptions of it.
Some in the conservative media have seen how Facebook ranks posts as a form of left-wing censorship, and Facebook’s recent announcement that it would limit the reach of stories from what its users view as non-trustworthy sources only solidifies the far-right’s beliefs about the platform. (“Liberal” gatekeeping by Facebook is also connected to a preference for dismantling net neutrality. —Ed.) This analysis shows, however, that Fox News’ controversial posts got more interactions, which could have helped it appear far more often in people’s newsfeeds. Facebook, in other words, would seem to be helping—not harming—conservative outlets like Fox News.
People should also know that what they see in their newsfeed is more likely to be popular posts and not a complete picture of the news. As with radio and television, a publisher who is more bombastic may anger people able to get more attention and perform better on the platform, but it could also unfairly skew the news on anyone’s Facebook feed.
Benjamin Greene is a S.E.O. analyst and content marketer living near the sunny beaches of Tampa, Fla.