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Facebook’s top news stories are like a window into an alternate dimension

It’s Super Tuesday and the coronavirus is spreading, but Facebook is talking about Hillary Clinton’s emails.

Secretary Clinton Testifies at Benghazi Hearing
Hillary Clinton testifies before Congress in October 2015.
Samuel Corum/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

There are a lot of consequential and important things going on. Not only is today Super Tuesday, but Americans are on edge about the spread of the novel coronavirus that could reach pandemic proportions.

But if you consume your news on Facebook, the biggest news of the day has to do with Hillary Clinton’s emails. Yes, really.

According to data compiled by CrowdTangle, the most total interactions on Facebook came on a Fox News article about a federal judge granting a request from a right-wing group named Judicial Watch to make Clinton sit for a sworn deposition about her use of a private email server when she was secretary of state.

In fact, as this is written early Tuesday afternoon, stories from right-wing sources about Clinton’s emails represent three of the top 10 and five of the 20 top-performing news stories on Facebook over the past 24 hours. The No. 4 story of the day is one about Clinton’s emails from Breitbart, and the eighth-ranked story is one on the same topic from Dan Bongino’s website. Coverage of her emails from National Review and Ben Shapiro also appear in the top 20.

What you won’t find in Facebook’s top 20 news stories, however, is Super Tuesday coverage, anything published by a left-of-center outlet, or anything that’s critical of President Donald Trump or his administration.

Here’s a look at the full top 20 Facebook stories:

1 — Fox News story about Clinton’s emails

2 — CNN story about Australian wildfires

3 — CNN story about coronavirus

4 — Breitbart story about Clinton’s emails

5 — Daily Mail story about new Krispy Kreme doughnut

6 — Fox News story about Monday’s stock market rebound

7 — Ben Shapiro story on Monday’s stock market rebound

8 — Dan Bongino story on Clinton’s emails

9 — Fox News story comparing Bernie Sanders with Hugo Chávez

10 — CNN story on Apple iPhone settlement

11 — Fox News story about Chris Matthews’s retirement

12 — Robert Reich’s post on CNN story about John Lewis’s surprise appearance in Selma

13 — National Review story about Clinton’s emails

14 — BBC News story on Putin trying to ban same-sex marriage in Russia

15 — Bernie Sanders post with link to polling places info

16 — NBC News story story about UPS worker planning mass shooting

17 — TMZ story about Kobe Bryant’s death

18 — Ben Shapiro story on Clinton’s emails

19 — Dan Bongino story about Devin Nunes wanting to subpoena law enforcement and intelligence community officials

20 — NBC story about coronavirus

Facebook has been reluctant to crack down on right-wing media

What explains the predominance of right-wing outlets on Facebook? According to Judd Legum, who reports extensively on Facebook in his Popular Information newsletter, part of the answer has to do with the sort of content that’s optimized for Facebook.

“Facebook is optimized for Trump supporters,” Legum wrote in a direct message. “It rewards engagement, which mostly reflects an emotional reaction to things. Support for Trump is largely emotional, not factual. So pro-Trump content does very very well.”

Chicanery could also be playing a role. Legum has detailed how Ben Shapiro’s Daily Wire spreads its content around Facebook with help from “a clandestine network of 14 large Facebook pages that purport to be independent but exclusively promote content from The Daily Wire in a coordinated fashion.” That sort of “inauthentic coordinated behavior” seemingly violates Facebook rules, but the Daily Wire gets away with it anyway.

Parker Molloy, editor at large for Media Matters, argued that Facebook “is essentially afraid of conservatives,” and noted that the group of third-party sites that fact-check news posts for the network includes right-wing ones like the Daily Caller and Breitbart.

“Facebook gives them free rein to set the online agenda,” Molloy told Vox.

The irony is that even as the right wing dominates the news marketplaces on Facebook, Republicans like Donald Trump Jr., House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, and Sen. Josh Hawley continue to push baseless conspiracy theories about Republicans being victimized by left-wing bias among the social media and tech behemoths.

During last week’s Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), for instance, Trump Jr., McCarthy, and Hawley hosted an event in which the president’s son accused Instagram, which is owned by Facebook, of being biased against Republicans because he searched his handle and couldn’t quickly find his account — a development he attributed to Instagram execs trying to silence him.

Despite what Don Jr. would have you believe, conservatives’ voices are the loudest on Facebook. According to an investigation put together last year by David Uberti for Vice:

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.

The news moves fast. To stay updated, follow Aaron Rupar on Twitter, and read more of Vox’s policy and politics coverage.

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