Despite cries of censorship, conservatives dominate social mediaOctober 27, 2020
Republicans have turned alleged liberal bias in Silicon Valley into a major closing theme of the election cycle, hauling tech CEOs in for virtual grillings on Capitol Hill while President Donald Trump threatens legal punishment for companies that censor his supporters.
But a POLITICO analysis of millions of social media posts shows that conservatives still rule online.
Right-wing social media influencers, conservative media outlets and other GOP supporters dominate online discussions around two of the election’s hottest issues, the Black Lives Matter movement and voter fraud, according to the review of Facebook posts, Instagram feeds, Twitter messages and conversations on two popular message boards. And their lead isn’t close.
As racial protests engulfed the nation after George Floyd’s death, users shared the most-viral rightwing social media content more than 10 times as often as the most popular liberal posts, frequently associating the Black Lives Matter movement with violence and accusing Democrats like Joe Biden of supporting riots.
People also shared conservatives’ most-read claims of rampant voter fraud roughly twice as often as they did liberals’ or traditional media outlets’ discussions of the issue, the analysis found. The conservatives’ tactics included spinning mainstream media coverage on voting irregularities into elaborate conspiracy theories, sometimes echoed by Trump, that Democratic lawmakers are trying to steal November’s election.
POLITICO worked with researchers at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, a London-based nonpartisan think tank that tracks extremism online, to analyze data from the institute’s extensive collection of information scraped from multiple social media platforms.
The findings demonstrate how a small number of conservative users routinely outpace their liberal rivals and traditional news outlets in driving the online conversation — amplifying their impact a little more than a week before Election Day. They contradict the prevailing political rhetoric from some Republican lawmakers that conservative voices are censored online — indicating that instead, right-leaning talking points continue to shape the worldviews of millions of U.S. voters.
“Their stories are captivating, easy to remember and create an outsized footprint online,” said Yochai Benkler, co-director of the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University, who published a separate report into how leading politicians like Trump and mainstream news outlets were central to spreading misinformation about mail-in voting.
None of that has stopped the president and his GOP allies from hammering the message that tech giants systematically silence and throttle conservative messages — or as the president has charged, “The Radical Left is in total command & control of Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Google.”
“Every year, countless Americans are banned, blacklisted, and silenced through arbitrary or malicious enforcement of ever-shifting rules,” Trump said in a September appearance with Attorney General William Barr and nine state AGs to discuss “social media abuses.” In a report this month, Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee put it even more plainly: “Big Tech Is Out to Get Conservatives.”
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey and Google CEO Sundar Pichai will face questions on the issue at a Senate Commerce Committee hearing Wednesday, while Zuckerberg and Dorsey will testify in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee on Nov. 17.
The issue has simmered for months, amid a series of incidents in which Facebook and Twitter slapped fact-check labels on — and, in some cases, deleted — posts from Trump about the election or Covid-19 after deeming them misleading or false. Conservative complaints escalated this month after both companies took steps to reduce the spread of a New York Post article that made uncorroborated claims about Biden’s ties to Ukraine.
“What we are watching — the militarization of social media on behalf of Democrats, and the overt suppression of material damaging to Democrats to the cheering of the press — is one of the single most dangerous political moments I have ever seen,” conservative commentator Ben Shapiro wrote on Twitter on Oct. 15.
But Shapiro’s own influence appears undimmed. His Facebook posts garnered more than 33 million social media interactions such as comments, shares and likes over the last 30 days, according to CrowdTangle, an analytics tool owned by Facebook. Biden’s page, in contrast, received 19 million interactions over the same period.
Conservative conveyor belt
POLITICO worked with the Institute for Strategic Dialogue’s researchers to analyze which online voices were loudest and which messaging was most widespread around the Black Lives Matter movement and the potential for voter fraud in November’s election.
That included analyzing more than 2 million social media posts across Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and the message boards Reddit and 4Chan. The posts originated from over 500,000 social media accounts and were linked to keywords and online hashtags associated with both issues.
The researchers collected the data between Aug. 28 and Sept. 25, and ranked the posts by how widely they had been shared and copied from one account to another. The analysis captured discussions from across the political spectrum, but did not include conversations in private channels, like invite-only Facebook groups, that were off-limits to the researchers.
“You see the same people popping up all the time,” said Ciaran O’Connor, a disinformation analyst at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue. “There’s no evidence of coordination, it’s more like groupthink. Anything that attacks Biden or the Democrats is fair game.”
Left-wing voices, including ACRONYM, a liberal campaign group that has funded partisan news outlets in several swing states, have also politicized events for their own gain. Foreign governments, notably Russia, continue to peddle falsehoods at the American public. A smaller data collection, run by the Institute for Strategic Dialogue between Oct. 20 and Oct. 23 around voter fraud conversations, showed that liberal voices had performed roughly on par with their conservative counterparts.
But in the previous monthlong analysis about Black Lives Matter and voter fraud, the loudest voices belong to conservatives like Shapiro, Republican activist James O’Keefe and Charlie Kirk, founder of the advocacy group Turning Point USA.
Aided by well-established conservative media outlets like the Western Journal and Breitbart News, as well as new outlets like The Post Millennial, these influencers have garnered an outsized audience, stoking claims that the Black Lives Matter movement is inherently violent and that fraudulent ballots are already flooding next month’s election.
At the end of August, for instance, Dan Bongino, a conservative commentator with millions of online followers, wrote on Facebook that Black Lives Matter protesters had called for the murder of police officers in Washington, D.C. Bongino’s social media posts are routinely some of the most shared content across Facebook, based on CrowdTangle’s data.
The claims — first made by a far-right publication that the Southern Poverty Law Center labeled as promoting conspiracy theories — were not representative of the actions of the Black Lives Matter movement. But Bongino’s post was shared more than 30,000 times, and received 141,000 other engagements such as comments and likes, according to CrowdTangle.
In contrast, the best-performing liberal post around Black Lives Matter — from DL Hughley, the actor — garnered less than a quarter of the Bongino post’s social media traction, based on data analyzed by POLITICO.
Conservative social media content “is a conveyor belt,” said Karen Kornbluh, director of the digital innovation and democracy initiative at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. She co-authored a recent study into how social media engagement from Facebook pages pushing falsehoods — mostly from the right — had skyrocketed.
“There’s a tremendous amount of content that doesn’t catch fire,” said Kornbluh, a former official in the Obama and Clinton administrations. “But when something catches on, it becomes incredibly viral.”
How claims go viral
On Aug. 29, an article in the New York Post dropped a bombshell: Democrats were using mail-in voter fraud to steal the election.
Under the headline “Confessions of a voter fraud: I was a master at fixing mail-in ballots,” an anonymous Democratic Party consultant outlined an alleged yearslong campaign to skew local, state and national elections in favor of liberal candidates.
The Democratic Party issued multiple denials, and an earlier review by the Brookings Institution highlighted extremely low levels of voter fraud across the country. But the New York Post article soon played a central role in the talking points of conservative influencers, Republican political groups and other influencers promoting the fraud claims on social media, according to POLITICO’s analysis.
A representative for the Post did not respond to POLITICO for comment.
Two days after the article was published, Breitbart News picked up the story in a Facebook post that was shared more than 37,000 times. Other conservative voices, including the talk radio host Mark Levin, similarly promoted it to their large online audiences. Jon Levine, the author of the Post’s story, was interviewed on Fox News, while Trump’s official campaign republished the article on its Facebook page, which has 1.6 million followers.
In total, the New York Post voter fraud allegations have been shared more than 185,000 times on Facebook, garnering 340,000 engagements such as comments and likes, based on CrowdTangle data.
In contrast, the best performing post on this topic from another traditional media outlet — an Axios article highlighting that the FBI had not seen any evidence of national voter fraud — was shared just 15,000 times on Facebook and received just 52,000 collective social media engagements.
POLITICO performed a closer analysis of the voting-fraud allegations, looking at the 100 most-shared posts on the topic and then checking to see if any of the claims could be verified with legal records or mainstream news coverage. None of the fraud charges could be, even if the claims were based on actual examples of glitches in the election process.
“People who are pushing these narratives use emotionally charged language. They want to elicit interactions,” said O’Connor, the disinformation analyst at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue. “What’s key is that every misleading message has a grain of truth to it.”
Rise of the mega influencer
Most voters outside his network of followers have never heard of Andy Ngo.
But as the editor-at-large of The Millenial Post, an ultra-conservative Canadian news outlet, he has become a key source for rightwing audiences in search of news about the Black Lives Matter movement.
Armed with roughly 800,000 social media followers, Ngo has documented violent attacks, arrests of suspected Black Lives Matter supporters and other minute-by-minute details of the race-based clashes that have spread across much of the country since late spring. His first book, about the left’s “radical plan” to destroy democracy, will be published early next year.
During the month that POLITICO analyzed, a third of Ngo’s roughly 50 posts ranked in the 30 most-shared digital messages about Black Lives Matter. Collectively, his top five messages on Twitter, based on shares, likes and retweets, received 35 times more engagement than the most prominent mainstream media post on the topic, from MSNBC’s Joy Reid, based on POLITICO’s analysis.
Ngo’s posts overwhelmingly portray the recent national racial unrest as a violent movement organized by the antifa movement, a conservative catch-all for left-wing causes that become unruly. He did not respond when approached by POLITICO for comment through his Twitter account.
That includes posting viral videos of alleged Black Lives Matter protests lobbying molotov cocktails at police officers; documenting the arrests of suspected antifa troublemakers; and accusing leftist groups of taking over large parts of cities like Portland, Ore.
Social media political influencers “are reaching larger audiences than ever before,” said Melanie Smith, head of analysis at Graphika, a social network analytics firm that tracks misinformation, adding that Ngo had jumped on previous rightwing bugbears, such as false accusations there Islamic “no-go” zones exist across London.
“He’s a figure who shops around different issues, getting involved when it’s being talked about a lot,” she added. “He’s one of the biggest voices talking about the Black Lives Matter movement.”