There was a lot of media hand-wringing this week following a NewsWhip report that nearly half of the journalists driving engagement on Facebook work for hyper-partisan outlets like the Daily Wire.
At first glance, this is a troubling trend, implying that serious news isn’t breaking through on social media. Many outlets covered it as such.
But while fake news is still a huge problem on Facebook, the data in this particular study isn’t as dire as it first appears.
NewsWhip CEO Paul Quigley explained on Twitter that many partisan websites employ small staffs. So if a reporter there puts out a clickable, shareable story, their followers will engage with it and increase that staffer’s traffic.
But that doesn’t mean legitimate news is fading away—in fact, it’s flourishing.
Sites like The New York Times employ over 1,000 journalists. Not every story is a hit on social media, so some legitimate reporters have fewer interactions than their partisan counterparts.
But given the sheer size of its staff, the Times gets more interactions overall than sites that spread fake news.
To prove his point, Quigley shared NewsWhip’s ranking of the most shared news sites. This list was released around the same time as NewsWhip’s reporter data, but got far less coverage.
The site data shows that NBC was the most engaging news site in February, with almost 28 million shares. CNN was second with almost 26 million shares, followed by Fox News and The New York Times.
But there’s no doubt that each of these outlets is more trustworthy than a lone fake news aggregator.
So why the huge disconnect between reporters and outlets?
Quigley pointed out that no matter how hard it tries, Facebook can’t control what people share. Obviously, the site would be better off if everyone shared only New York Times stories, but that’s not how the internet works.
One alternative would be for Facebook to block users from sharing certain stories. But according to Quigley, that would turn the site into the world’s biggest censor and arbiter of what’s right and wrong. This could potentially lead to an Orwellian silencing of views.
But other tech companies have come up with solutions that warn users without turning into Big Brother. For example, YouTube is now labeling state-run media clips as a way to fight fake news. It’s not censorship since users can still watch the videos, but now at least they’re fully informed about the source.
There’s no clear way forward for Facebook to solve this problem, but data like this provides a good roadmap for diagnosing the issue.
“If you want to solve a problem, you gotta understand it,” Quigley said.