These tweets link to a Buzzfeed story headlined “Viral Fake Election News Outperformed Real News On Facebook In Final Months Of The US Election.” The story has interesting data about the proliferation of a few fake news stories, but it comes nowhere near proving the headline or Ben Smith’s tweet, that Fake News Beat Real News.
The methodology is a mess in many ways.
First, it doesn’t measure how much traffic went to fake election stories versus real election stories — it only picks the top few stories in each genre. Second, the study only chooses from a handful of mainstream sites. Third, the “Real News” stories often aren’t real news at all—a point which doesn’t undercut the conclusion as much as it shows the silliness of the comparison.
The BuzzFeed study looked only at the top 20 election stories, in terms of engagement, by fake websites and compared it the top 20 election stories from a tiny list of mainstream sites. The list included left-leaning opinion-heavy outlets like Huffington Post and Vox. They didn’t include Yahoo News and the Daily Mail, two of the most-read news sites in the U.S. Also excluded: Reuters, BBC, Associated Press, Bloomberg, and, ahem, the Washington Examiner. You could add the Boston Globe, the Chicago Tribune and the major newspapers in every city besides New York, L.A., and D.C.
So the “Real News” numbers are from an incomplete, odd, and unexplained subsample of the media.
Also, the “Real News” isn’t even Real News.
Look at the top “Real News” stories to which Buzzfeed compares the fake news stories.
Here’s the top “Real News” stories: “Trump’s history of corruption is mind-boggling. So why is Clinton supposedly the corrupt one?” As the headline suggests, this is a liberal opinion piece, complaining that the media doesn’t report enough on Trump’s scandals.
The No. 3 “Real News” story is “Melania Trump’s Girl-on-Girl Photos From Racy Shoot Revealed,” published at the New York Post.
To be clear, the journalists gnashing their teeth about “Fake Election News” winning would have been less concerned if “Melania Trump’s Girl-on-Girl Photos” had received more clicks.
If this study shows something it’s that the biggest fake news stories get a ton of Facebook engagement—maybe more than the biggest real election stories. (I say “maybe,” because maybe there were stories with more engagement at places like AP, Reuters, Bloomberg, the Miami Herald, the Chicago Tribune, the Dallas Morning News, Yahoo News, Cleveland Plain Dealer, the Houston Chronicle, or any of the thousand other news sources not included in the BuzzFeed study.)
But even that narrow finding is a bit misleading. For one thing, the top story from the fall is about the Pope. Fake Pope News is its own genre—a massive genre—that here happens to intersect with the genre of Fake Election News. Here’s a Religion News Service story from 2014 headlined “Did Pope Francis really say that? Probably not.”
Again, Fake News has huge reach, as this story shows. But the claim that it “beat” real news is not shown here, and the widely chart giving the story the air of DATA JOURNALISM!!! is not supported by the very limited data here.
Timothy P. Carney, The Washington Examiner’s senior political columnist, can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. His column appears Tuesday and Thursday nights on washingtonexaminer.com.