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Far-Right Misinformation Is Thriving On Facebook. A New Study Shows Just How Much

Mar 6, 2021
Originally published on March 6, 2021 7:35 pm

Updated at 8:35 p.m. ET

By the time a pro-Trump mob stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, fueled by far-right conspiracies and lies about a stolen election, a group of researchers at New York University had been compiling Facebook engagement data for months.

The NYU-based group, Cybersecurity For Democracy, was studying online misinformation — wanting to know how different types of news sources engaged with their audiences on Facebook. After the events of Jan. 6, researcher Laura Edelson expected to see a spike in Facebook users engaging with the day's news, similar to Election Day.

But Edelson, who helped lead the research, said her team noticed a troubling phenomenon.

"The thing was, most of that spike was concentrated among the partisan extremes and misinformation providers," Edelson told NPR's All Things Considered. "And when I really sit back and think about that, I think the idea that on a day like that, which was so scary and so uncertain, that the most extreme and least reputable sources were the ones Facebook users were engaging with, is pretty troubling."

But it wasn't just one day of high engagement. A new study from Cybersecurity For Democracy found that far-right accounts known for spreading misinformation are not only thriving on Facebook, they're actually more successful than other kinds of accounts at getting likes, shares and other forms of user engagement.

It wasn't a small edge, either.

"It's almost twice as much engagement per follower among the sources that have a reputation for spreading misinformation," Edelson said. "So, clearly, that portion of the news ecosystem is behaving very differently."

The research team used CrowdTangle, a Facebook-owned tool that measures engagement, to analyze more than 8 million posts from almost 3,000 news and information sources over a five-month period. Those sources were placed in one of five categories for partisanship — Far Right, Slightly Right, Center, Slightly Left, Far Left — using evaluations from Media Bias/Fact Check and NewsGuard.

Each source was then evaluated on whether it had a history of spreading misinformation or conspiracy theories. What Edelson and her colleagues discovered is what some Facebook critics — and at least one anonymous executive — have been saying for some time: that far-right content is just more engaging. In fact, the study found that among far-right sources, those known for spreading misinformation significantly outperformed non-misinformation sources.

Researchers with Cybersecurity For Democracy found that far-right misinformation drives more engagement per follower than any other partisan leaning.
Cybersecurity For Democracy

In all other partisan categories, though, "the sources that have a reputation for spreading misinformation just don't engage as well," Edelson said. "There could be a variety of reasons for that, but certainly the simplest explanation would be that users don't find them as credible and don't want to engage with them."

The researchers called this phenomenon the "misinformation penalty."

Facebook has repeatedly promised to address the spread of conspiracies and misinformation on its site. Joe Osborne, a Facebook spokesperson, told NPR in a statement that engagement is not the same as how many people actually see a piece of content. "When you look at the content that gets the most reach across Facebook, it's not at all as partisan as this study suggests," he said.

In response, Edelson called on Facebook to be transparent with how it tracks impressions and promotes content: "They can't say their data leads to a different conclusion but then not make that data public."

"I think what's very clear is that Facebook has a misinformation problem," she said. "I think any system that attempts to promote the most engaging content, from what we call tell, will wind up promoting misinformation."

Editor's note: Facebook is among NPR's financial supporters.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.


Finally today, so you might not be surprised that a record titled "Preacher's Kid" by a musician whose father was a pastor would take the top spot on the iTunes Christian album chart. That happened last month with the new album by Grace Semler Baldrige, who performs as Semler. But the lyrics on that album tell a different story than the one you might be expecting.


SEMLER: (Singing) My mom turned 18 in the 1960s, and she doesn't remember Stonewall.

MARTIN: In "Preacher's Kid," Semler explores faith and church life through a queer lens, everything from the meaning of the gospel and activism to what really happens at youth group. And Semler is with us now to talk about "Preacher's Kid."

Grace Semler Baldridge, Semler, thank you so much for joining us. Congratulations.

SEMLER: Thank you so much for having me. I'm so excited to be here.

MARTIN: I understand that the provenance of this is actually kind of different than you might expect. This was kind of a - you know, this wasn't like some big plan, as I understand it.

SEMLER: (Laughter) Yes, certainly not. I recorded this at home in the room that I'm speaking to you from, my office, on a USB mic plugged into my laptop because...

MARTIN: (Laughter).

SEMLER: I just had some things I had to unpack. And I uploaded it myself on distrokid.com. And I don't know. I didn't expect any of this, but I'm very happy to be in this position.

MARTIN: Well, you can tell it's kind of - the production's a little casual.


SEMLER: That's very generous of you. Yeah.

MARTIN: But the thoughts are very complete. I mean, it just sounds like something that's been on your mind for a while. So do you mind? Just walk us through a little bit of your background. You are a preacher's kid, or a PK.

SEMLER: Yeah, sure. So my dad is an Episcopal priest, and I grew up in the rectory. And that, you know, very much just was my life. I have no memories of not growing up in faith, in a church environment. And that was wonderful in some regards and also not wonderful in other regards, specifically when it comes to being a queer person and going through that self-discovery as a teenager.

MARTIN: Did you experience your queerness as a young person? And did you experience it as something to hide? You know, there are some denominations and church communities, church families, that are more welcoming than others. I mean, obviously, there have been some really horrific stories of, you know, people being forced to go through conversion therapy or people being kicked out of the house. I take it that wasn't your experience. But, you know, what was it, if you wouldn't - if you could...


MARTIN: ...Describe it a bit more?

SEMLER: Yeah. So I knew I was gay from a pretty early age. And I also knew that I belonged to an affirming church, although it wasn't outwardly affirming. There weren't, like, pride flags. It was kind of as affirming as many churches were in the 2010s. There weren't, like, anti-gay sermons, but I also was not protected from larger church culture. So when I would be sent on, like, youth events and things like that, even though I was raised Episcopal, the other youth people that would be there were of an evangelical tradition.

I remember when Young Life started kind of loitering around our school when I was in high school, and I remember being introduced to a very different Christian doctrine that was quite confusing for me and that made it pretty clear that my sexuality and my identity was something to hide and potentially something to be ashamed of. And it was just - the culture at large was just emphatically not affirming. You know, I remember praying over someone at, like, a church camp because they were gay and thinking in the back of my head, like, oh, my gosh.

Like, all of a sudden, it, like, was - I recognized we're praying that she isn't what I am, and I'm gay. And now that's a little thing of, like, better keep this secret. I don't want people praying over me. I don't want to be crying and having strangers - because I don't know this girl. Like, I still don't know her last name. I have this vivid memory of her that came rushing back now that I'm 30 years old, and I don't know her name, and I don't know if she's OK.

MARTIN: Wow. Well to that end, let me play a little bit from the opening track, "Bethlehem." And here it is. We'll talk a little bit more. Here it is.


SEMLER: (Singing) But I'm a child of God, just in case you forgot. And you cast me out every single chance that you got, and that's your loss, not mine. I'll be better than fine. You...

MARTIN: That's a pretty powerful statement if you think about it, you know, for kids who - I'm thinking about it from a kid's perspective, maybe from a teenager's perspective or somebody who's just kind of getting in touch with themselves or trying to figure out who he, she or they is. Did you always know you'd be fine?

SEMLER: No, I definitely didn't. I have pretty strong memories of lying in bed listening to Christian music, ironically, and just wondering, like, will I ever be OK? I didn't know that I would be fine. And I think that my life now is so exciting and happy, and I want to be visible for anyone who needs to see it because I think it would have been helpful for me. And I know as artists, a lot of what we do is just sort of extending a hug to our younger selves. And that's very much, I think, what this project was for me.

MARTIN: And you made the explicit choice to position this as Christian music, right? And what was behind that decision? Was it in part that - to give a hug to the younger self who wants to claim both your faith and your sexuality and doesn't feel you need to choose? Or...

SEMLER: Yeah. Well, there's no division in me. It's not that I'm queer, and then I'm Christian. I'm a whole person in Christ, and I'm also queer. And I think that writing "Preacher's Kid" - this is a Christian record just because there are certain people, certain gatekeepers in this industry who would never acknowledge who I am and that my story is valid doesn't make that true.

I'm here. I have a lived Christian experience. My faith is deeply important to me. And there's a pluralism of beliefs within Christianity, within that umbrella. And we know that to be true. But yet, within the genre of music, of Christian music, it's just so homogenous.

MARTIN: I'm mindful as we are having this conversation, what seems absolutely right and obvious to you and you know it in the core of your being - to other people, this is just wrong and dangerous. And, you know, how can we be talking about this without, you know, embracing that point of view? And, you know, church is like the one place - or church or the faith communities are the one place where people feel, I think, comfortable in absolutes.

SEMLER: Yes. Yeah.

MARTIN: How do you think about that? Are you kind of hoping that people who need the hug, as you put it, will just find it? Do you hope to persuade people who absolutely disagree? What do you think?

SEMLER: It's really not about persuading people who disagree. It's sort of an invitation to recognize my humanity, right? I think the line in "Bethlehem" that I hear people share most often is, but I'm a child of God, just in case you forgot. As Christians, we're taught to see the image bearer in each person we come into contact with. And for some reason, the LGBTQ plus community has been spared from that dignity within a lot of Christian circles.

So with this project, and I think with the visibility that sort of has recently come my way, I'm just hopeful that it could serve as an invitation for other Christians to lean in and learn more about affirming theology that is so - that is the cornerstone of so many Christian denominations. It's just the question, is it possible that you're wrong? You know, is it possible that perhaps the theology of exclusion is not the only way?

So just join me halfway, and let's talk about this on an even playing field because the queer community, for the most part, has been doing the heavy lifting when it comes to understanding a pluralism of theologies. I'm not really seeing that from the conservative side.

MARTIN: What should we go out on?

SEMLER: Oh. Maybe "Jesus From Texas."

MARTIN: OK. That was Semler, a.k.a. Grace Semler Baldrige. Her new EP, "Preacher's Kid," is out now.

Semler, thank you so much for speaking with us.

SEMLER: Thank you for having me.


SEMLER: (Singing) Oh, what a terrible honor it is to watch the sky fall as a character witness. I spent the rest of the night freaking out. I had to get high just to put myself down. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.