By the time Robert Mueller's report on Russian interference landed, the battle to spin it had already begun, with politicians and media outlets pumping out their respective takes.
But on Facebook, there was one clear winner: Fox News.
The network’s favorable interpretation of the Mueller report — that it exonerated the president — furiously gathered up reactions, comments, and shares. In fact, its main Facebook page nearly doubled CNN’s in total engagements the day the report dropped, according to the analytics firm CrowdTangle. The New York Times and the Washington Post each mustered just one-sixth the number of Facebook interactions. MSNBC, Fox News' purported liberal foil, drew just one-tenth.
It was pure domination of a highly politicized moment — or just another day for Fox News on Facebook.
In the Trump era, Fox News has cemented itself as the most dominant news publisher on Facebook as measured by engagement, a crucial metric for Facebook’s ranking system and a rough gauge of attention on the platform, topping news organizations like The New York Times and The Washington Post.
Over the past three years, CrowdTangle estimates that Fox News’ main Facebook page, with 17 million followers, has racked up 80 percent more reactions, comments, and shares than CNN, which has 31 million followers. The Fox page’s engagement rate — the average number of engagements per post per follower — was higher than any major news organization over the same period, and some five times that of The New York Times.
As Facebook continues to grapple with the spread of misinformation and divisive content, causing critics to worry that it could pose threats to democracy, the lead that Fox News has built over less partisan news organizations on the platform strikes some as painfully ironic.
“The way Fox News dominates on Facebook is a good example of the way engagement can distort social media,” said Tara McGowan, CEO of the nonprofit digital organization Acronym and former digital director of Priorities USA, a Democratic political action committee. “The fact they can drive the exact same storyline each and every day across channels — from television to social media — is so much more effective at influencing hearts and minds than political advertising.”
The cable TV giant has succeeded on Facebook by mixing traditional news and viral fare with Trump-friendly posts and culture-war dispatches, an approach that sheds light on how Facebook’s closely guarded algorithm both reflects and shapes public perception.
Fox News’ impact was exaggerated on a hyper-politicized day like Mueller Day. It fed followers of its main page with a diet of posts that aligned closely with the administration’s own messaging: a live stream of Attorney General William Barr’s deferential news conference; a quote from Barr’s remarks saying that evidence of obstruction didn’t hold up; footage of Trump leaving Joint Base Andrews for vacation in Florida; footage of Trump arriving in Florida; Sean Hannity’s celebratory opening monologue; a quote from former GOP Rep. Michele Bachmann exalting Trump as “highly biblical.”
One post was simply a “Game of Thrones” meme ripped almost directly off the president’s own social feeds, which raked in 50,000 engagements.
“I’m having a good day, too, it’s called ‘no collusion, no obstruction,” another post quoted Trump as saying, drawing more than 55,000 engagements.
A Fox News spokesperson downplayed the outlet’s pro-Trump tilt, pointing to stories that recently appeared on FoxNews.com with opposing viewpoints and reiterating the network’s division between news and opinion programs. Individual Facebook pages for opinion shows tend to draw more Facebook engagement than pages for shows on the news side.
“As a multiplatform media company, we utilize Facebook to interact with our audience and our social posts reflect what is on Fox News Digital and Fox News Channel, including lifestyle and human interest stories, business analysis and entertainment posts,” Jason Ehrich, executive vice president of marketing, audience development, and partnerships, added in a statement. “As with every major news organization, our top priority across all platforms is to deliver an informative and compelling news product to our audience on a daily basis.”
The influence of Fox on Facebook comes as Trump, Republican lawmakers, and Fox News personalities have repeatedly accused Silicon Valley of bias against conservatives. Rupert Murdoch, the Trump ally who owns Fox parent company Fox Corp., has similarly condemned the tech giant publicly and privately for wreaking havoc on the news industry.
Over the past several years, Facebook has repeatedly changed how it decides which posts will end up in users’ News Feeds, throwing media outlets off-balance. Facebook has, at various points, favored live videos, short videos, and long videos. It’s fought to cut down on clickbait and fake profiles. And more recently it’s begun favoring posts from friends over posts from publishers, causing traffic at some sites to plummet.
Still, Facebook, a platform that continuously causes problems and promises solutions, remains a crucial distributor of news.
It also happens to be a black box. Only Facebook and individual page owners know how many people have seen a post, or how many have clicked on a link. There may very well be news organizations that get more traffic to their websites from Facebook, and there are news organizations with larger followings. But perhaps the best proxy for popularity on Facebook is a simple total of engagements. Crowdtangle is a leading source of this data, and it’s owned by Facebook.
So while we don’t know what, exactly, is happening on Facebook, we have the engagement signal, and it’s stark. CrowdTangle’s findings suggest that posts published by Fox News’ page draw far more reactions, comments, or shares than any mainstream news outlet, a lead it’s maintained in the Trump era despite massive digital investments and aggressive reporting by some of its peers. Data compiled by NewsWhip, another analytics firm, suggest that URLs published by FoxNews.com and subsidiary sites also crushed competitors in engagement across Facebook in the first three months of 2019.
Facebook, for its part, concedes Fox News knows what it’s doing.
“Fox clearly has different methods of connecting with people than other publishers might,” a Facebook spokesman said. “If you’re going to constantly engage with Fox, commenting on their posts or sharing their content, clearly that’s a signal for us. If you follow them, that could be a signal. But if I follow Fox and I always scroll past Fox News’ stories, that’s going to be a smaller part of my News Feed."
Fox News may also be benefiting from Facebook’s effort to clean up its act. Soon after the 2016 election, as fears around misinformation hit a fever pitch, Facebook began turning its dials to screen out so-called fake news and conspiracies. In some cases, Facebook demoted or banned hyperpartisan pages, many of them smaller or more conspiratorial than famed Sandy Hook truther site InfoWars.
This cleanup effort could be inadvertently boosting Fox, said Robert Faris, who studies digital communication as the research director at Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society. By diminishing the reach of a constellation of largely right-wing, fringe sites, Facebook may have effectively redirected some users’ attention toward Fox News.
“They haven’t changed the demand for right-wing media,” Faris told VICE News. “They’ve just squashed some of the supply. You should expect some of the remaining pages to get a boost. Fox News is doing a fine job of serving up red meat to the partisans.”
“We would intentionally post content that would be divisive”
Fox News’ dominance of Facebook began before candidate Trump’s political rise or Hillary Clinton’s scandals: It began to pull away from the New York Times, ABC News, and CNN in engagement in early 2014.
At a time when many news organizations started tuning out reader comments, if not blocking them altogether, Fox News mined comments for ideas. A former Fox News producer said its social team scoured responses to Facebook posts to see which topics popped and why, using their numbers or intensity to inform future posts.
What they found was a lot of rage, not just toward President Barack Obama but also toward mainstream Republicans who would, in just a few years, get largely blown out of public life — or find themselves answering to Trump.
“When you got into the comments, you started to realize how many people who watched Fox News and followed our Facebook page were growing increasingly resentful of John Boehner and Mitch McConnell,” the former social producer said. “Why are they letting Obama win? Why are we getting pushed around?”
What’s more, the person said, the engagement trends suggested a fear of a changing America — fear of immigration, fear of globalization, and changing expressions of national pride — bubbled beneath the criticism. The social team doubled down.
Fox News host Jeanine Pirro’s plea to impeach Obama in June 2014, saying that he is “destroying this country,” drew more engagements than any other post by the outlet’s primary page that month, according to CrowdTangle. A New Jersey school’s fight over keeping the words “under God” in the pledge of allegiance dominated that November. And a May 2015 Fox Business video broadcasting a threat against America from ISIS raked in 44 million views.
“We would intentionally post content that would be divisive and elicit a lot of comments,” the former social producer said, adding that high-engagement posts would inform programming decisions on TV. “Fox was all about a numbers game.”
“When Trump announced that he was running ... that’s when our numbers exploded”
Then came Fox News’ big Facebook moment. “When Trump announced that he was running,” the person added, “that’s when our numbers exploded.”
Until then, Facebook engagement had largely been dominated by web media outlets built to master the platform’s algorithm. Upworthy famously gamed it with feel-good liberal content earlier in the decade; by the time the Trump campaign rolled around, digital newsrooms like BuzzFeed and The Huffington Post were still dominant on the platform.
But by July 2015, Trump helped Fox News become the first non-digital media outlet to crack the top two spots of NewsWhip’s monthly Facebook rankings.
It only ramped up from there. In July 2016, as the Republican National Convention coincided with police killings of unarmed black men and a mass shooting of police officers in Dallas, Fox’s page reached then-unmatched heights in engagement.
A Rudy Giuliani quote implying that Black Lives Matter is racist drew more than a half-million reactions, comments, and shares, according to CrowdTangle, making it Fox’s second-most highly engaged post of the month. Video footage of a Fox correspondent confronting Black Lives Matter protestors — No. 4 — attracted more than 44 million views. Pirro rounded out the top five with an eight-minute pro-Trump infomercial.
High-performing content from competitors that month wasn’t quite so incendiary: CNN’s top post showed Black Lives Matter protesters and counterprotesters hugging it out; ABC News featured breaking coverage of the Dallas shooting; and The New York Times shared a 360-degree video of Mecca and Medina.
July 2016, it turned out, would be a consequential month for the campaign. Russian agents were using fake accounts and political ads to flood Facebook with misinformation and divisive messaging on guns, race, and gay rights. Many of them would later be indicted by the special counsel’s office for election meddling. The FBI interviewed Hillary Clinton about her private email server, and WikiLeaks began disseminating emails stolen from the Democratic National Committee.
For Fox News, the final stretch was a gusher. The TV network ran with the scandals for months. And the social team frenetically ran up its Facebook page engagement as November loomed.
“I was so preoccupied that our numbers were doing well that it wasn’t until the tail end of the election that the guilt was seeping in,” the former Fox News social producer said. “We all knew that Trump was going to win.”
That’s when Facebook’s problems started. It was accused of having been manipulated by the Russians, amplifying divisive topics, breathing life into conspiracies, and spreading fake news. Revelations that Cambridge Analytica employed Facebook user data to craft Trump’s digital strategy shocked the tech world. A Senate investigation found that foreign agents had used the platform’s advertising tools to try to suppress African-American turnout.
When Facebook tweaked its ranking system in January 2018, it claimed to be prioritizing “conversations and meaningful interactions between people.” The change was meant to benefit posts from friends and family. Days later, another tweak aimed to promote “high-quality” news.
“There's too much sensationalism, misinformation and polarization in the world today,” Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg wrote in announcing the move. “That's why it's important that News Feed promotes high-quality news that helps build a sense of common ground.”
Some mainstream publishers, like CNN, have grown their total engagements since then. But so, too, have Breitbart, The Daily Wire, The Daily Mail, and the viral publisher LADbible, which vie for some of the top spots in NewsWhip’s monthly rankings. FoxNews.com is also still ballooning: Its content drew about 20 million more interactions across Facebook in March compared to January 2018.
A current Fox employee lamented to VICE News that the network forged this deep, digital connection with its audience through the same blend of tabloid-y headlines and political outrage that plays well on cable news and talk radio.
“It’s just a shame Fox News has ruined so many Thanksgivings”
“It’s just a shame Fox News has ruined so many Thanksgivings,” he added. “Upworthy never ruined a Thanksgiving.”
A Facebook spokesperson told VICE News that there’s no one path to maximize engagement — and thus make sure more people see a story in their News Feed. But in deciding which content bubbles upward, he added, Facebook integrates internal trust rankings of news sources culled from user surveys (it does not make these rankings public).
Facebook also values comments more than it does reactions.
Both of those metrics would seem to benefit Fox. The network boasts high trust ratings among the right side of the political spectrum, according to a December 2018 Suffolk University poll, even if much of the rest of the country thinks otherwise. Fox News’ engagement lead over mainstream counterparts is also particularly pronounced when measured in comments, according to CrowdTangle. Many of those comments tend to come on hot-button posts.
“[W]e want to prioritize conversations that are healthy,” the Facebook spokesperson said. “So we do demote comments that are bad for the general ecosystem on a publisher page — ones that are uncivil, hateful, bullying. While it’s fine for people to disagree over a type of content, when it comes to people being nasty or using hateful words, that’s the kind of stuff we use human raters for."
Outrage sells across the internet, of course, and outlets of all political leanings have been guilty of sensationalism. But digital media employees inside and outside of Fox said they worry the company’s audience creates a pile-on effect in comment sections. On Mueller Day, Fox News posted an image of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer calling the report’s findings “disturbing.” The top comment — liked by more than 8,000 users — suggested “We should have a coup against Pelosi and Schumer.” After a Wednesday post of Hillary Clinton calling Mueller’s report “not the end,” a top commenter replied, “Hopefully the end to your freedom Hillary!” About 6,600 users liked it.
“They post content about the left or about the right, and either way it’s emotive enough to trigger a reaction or an outrage share,” added Matt Dornic, a spokesman for CNN, Fox’s top rival for engagement among serious news publishers. “Facebook claims to favor ‘meaningful interaction,’ so it’s really a question of how they qualify that.”
A Fox spokesperson shot back at the notion that the network posts outrage-bait: “CNN’s false assumptions about our content is only a pathetic attempt to divert attention from the fact that they are now losing on digital in addition to their continued last-place ranking in television ratings for the last 17 years.”
Old audience, new platforms
The deep connection Fox News has with its audience often plays out on Facebook in more nuanced ways than Trumpian rhetoric about “illegals” or Tucker Carlson smacking down liberals. Posts about local police, military pride, and everyday heroes often pull in big engagement numbers. Among Fox News’ top posts in April is a story about a man who brought a steer to a Petco store to test its “all leashed pets are welcome policy.” Another that shared news of how Texas is requiring elementary school students to learn cursive drew an even greater response. Such posts subtly zero in on tensions between what’s perceived as Real America and what’s not.
That could be especially fertile ground as Facebook’s audience starts looking more like TV’s. The median Fox News Channel viewer is 65, according to Nielsen, and the research firm eMarketer estimates that the 55-64 and 65+ age groups comprise the two fastest-growing segments of Facebook’s American user base.
“Almost all older social network users use Facebook, while a lot of younger social network users use things like Snapchat or Instagram,” eMarketer analyst Nicole Perrin added.
Research published in the journal Science this year suggested that elderly Facebook users—who tend to be more conservative—share fake news at higher rates than other age groups. BuzzFeed reporting has also suggested that elderly users engage more with hyperpartisan content. But Facebook’s opacity has largely made independent studies of user behavior difficult.
What’s clear is that Fox News’ rise on Facebook has meant that the GOP has a large and growing advantage as more political content comes users’ way. 2020 campaigns have collectively spent nearly $10 million on Facebook ads so far this year, according to the digital firm Bully Pulpit Interactive, and its analysis of the platform’s publicly available targeting data shows that Team Trump has overwhelmingly honed in on seniors in recent weeks. Fox News’ organic reach on Facebook, coupled with its alignment with Trump’s messaging, is likely to amplify that strategy.
“Trump has been building an engaged base on Facebook and actively riles that base up, keeping a perpetual outrage cycle going,” said Daniel Scarvalone, senior director of Bully Pulpit Interactive and a former Democratic operative. “Fox News is a big part of that.”
Correction: A previous version of this article misstated the parent company of Fox News.
Cover: Donald Trump participates in a debate sponsored by Fox News at the Fox Theatre on March 3, 2016 in Detroit, Michigan (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
This article originally appeared on VICE News US.