You might expect Jestin Coler to be deferential toward Facebook, given that the $300 billion company is both his biggest nemesis and financial lifeline. Nope. If anything, the proprietor of the fake news site National Report is utterly defiant. “You will never stop misinformation or fake news,” he said. “Someone will always be telling lies out there.”
True enough. Fake news is a scourge, but so far it appears to be an unstoppable one, showing up everywhere from your gullible friend’s timeline to the pages of the New York Times.
A little more than year ago, in reaction to the proliferation of fake news stories across its News Feed, Facebook declared war on sites like Coler’s — which exist to produce very clickable, but completely false, news stories that are designed to gin up reactions on Facebook — and to make a quick buck on ads when people click through to the site. Facebook's declaration of war was significant since its News Feed, the most powerful information distribution tool in the world, was fueling most of these sites' reach.
Yet thanks to new tactics and a healthy interest in the typically sensational stories they publish, fake news sites still enjoy widespread reach on Facebook, according to a BuzzFeed News analysis of post engagement data across nine top fake news sites. In many ways, it is the golden age of fake news. Easy access to publishing tools makes it easier than ever to create news sources meant to mislead. And social distribution channels give the stories published by these outlets a clear path to the masses. Facebook does, however, claim to be making headway overall.
"Overall since we rolled out updates to down-rank hoaxes on Facebook, we have seen a decline in shares on most hoax sites and posts,” a Facebook spokesperson told BuzzFeed News, describing the process by which it assigns items in its feed high or low rankings, which subsequently affects how often they appear.
To gauge Facebook’s progress in its fight, BuzzFeed News examined data across thousands of posts published to the fake news sites’ Facebook pages, and found decidedly mixed results. While average engagements (likes + shares + comments) per post fell from 972.7 in January 2015 to 434.78 in December 2015, they jumped to 827.8 in January 2016 and a whopping 1,304.7 in February.
Without having access to Facebook’s own data (which the company declined to provide), it is difficult to determine the number of people who actually saw these posts. However, adding up the likes, shares, and comments to determine a post’s engagement number provides a good proxy for its reach. These three factors are important influencers of Facebook’s algorithm, which determines what shows up in News Feed.
Some of the posts on the fake news sites’ pages went extremely viral many months after Facebook announced its crackdown. In August, for instance, an Empire News story reporting that Boston Marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev sustained serious injuries in prison received more than 240,000 likes, 43,000 shares, and 28,000 comments on its Facebook page. The incident was pure fiction, but still spread like wildfire on the platform. An even less believable September post about a fatal gang war sparked by the "Blood" moon was shared over 22,000 times from the Facebook page of Huzlers, another fake news site.
Some people sharing these stories may understand they’re looking at potentially specious stuff: “I so hope this is true!” wrote one person who shared the Tsarnaev story. But many others clearly have no idea. "Good for the bastard," wrote another. "Maybe he should have left America alone," wrote another. (And the majority of people sharing the posts seem to do so with no added commentary at all.)
Into The Data
BuzzFeed News’ analysis covered the following nine sites: National Report, Huzlers, Empire News, The Daily Currant, I Am Cream Bmp, CAP News, NewsBiscuit.com, Call the Cops, and World News Daily Report. All nine were drawn from the "Fake/Hoax News Websites" section of fakenewswatch.com, and were still actively publishing fake news after being listed.
BuzzFeed News tested engagement on these sites in two ways. First, we tracked the engagement numbers on the sites’ individual Facebook posts. Second, we looked at engagement data on all of the public posts that linked back to stories appearing on these sites. The data was obtained via CrowdTangle, a company that tracks social engagement and plugs into Facebook’s API, and analyzed with VQL.
Huzlers, the website that fabricated a gang war, saw engagement for public posts linking to its content across Facebook go from 294.9 per post in January 2015 to 340.6 in mid-December. At one point in November 2015, public links to Huzlers content on Facebook garnered 1,000.7 engagements per post.
As for Jestin Coler’s National Report, average engagement per public post linking to its content dropped from 370.8 engagements in January 2015 to a low of 92.9 in July 2015. But by December 2015, average engagement per public post rose to 251.7.
Fake News Super Seeders
Links to fake news posts spread across Facebook via a number of different channels. They move on the pages set up by the publications themselves, but to leap past their existing audiences, they need people to share them. And BuzzFeed News found they spread in this way thanks to some surprising third parties that act as super seeders.
Take D.L. Hughley, for example. The comedian, whose page is liked by more than 1.7 million people, showed up twice in the Huzlers logs. One fictitious Huzlers story he posted, about Magic Johnson donating blood, garnered more than 10,000 shares from his page. Hughley, who did not respond to BuzzFeed News' request for comment, also shared four National Report links in 2015.
Radio stations also frequently post fake news. The Florida-based 93XFM was one of a number of radio stations BuzzFeed News discovered sharing Huzlers posts in 2015. Asked about one April post linking to a Huzlers story about a woman smoking PCP and chewing off her boyfriend's penis, a 93XFM DJ named Sadie explained that fact-checking Facebook posts isn’t exactly a high priority.
“It's up to us jocks to keep [the page] updated, so sometimes we see something that we think is funny or entertaining and share it without realizing it's fake,” she said in an interview conducted over Facebook chat. “It's not intentionally used to be deceptive, we just probably didn't have time to research it.”
Some radio stations, Sadie continued, have requirements that may lead DJs to post frequently without checking the source. “Our company is not like this, but I know of a few where jocks have a social media quota they have to meet, i.e. three FB posts and five tweets during your shift, etc.,” she said.
In its post last January announcing plans to decrease reach for fake news stories, Facebook said it would rely on user feedback — in the form of flagging posts as fake or mass deletions — to determine when to decrease the reach of fake posts. But when celebrities like D.L. Hughley and radio stations post these stories, it reduces the chance of that happening for a simple, very social reason: People assume sources they like enough to follow on Facebook won’t steer them wrong.
Come Get Me
In this environment, not only are ordinary people getting tricked, but even some in the business of distinguishing real from fake. Jestin Coler’s National Report, for instance, was linked in a December 2015 New York Times editorial urging state and local leaders to pass harsher laws restricting guns.
Calling this legislation “critically important steps toward a safer country,” the Times pointed to a California law banning the sale of .45 ACP ammunition. The law, however, is completely fake — fabricated by National Report. A call to California Governor Jerry Brown’s office asking to speak with its spokesman named in the article received the following reply: “No one by that name works in our office.” After being alerted to this by BuzzFeed News, the Times removed the link and published the following correction:
Coler, you see, was not being reckless when he said fake news will never be stopped, he was merely stating the facts based on what he’s seen since Facebook’s announcement. Though National Report’s traffic from Facebook declined, Coler told BuzzFeed News that he’s set up a network of “sister sites” to keep Facebook off balance in its attack. In other words, he plays whack-a-mole with Facebook’s enforcement.
“When we publish through National Report, it doesn't do very well at all,” Coler said. “But when we promote that same exact content through these other domains then we're still seeing traffic that's similar to what it was before the big crackdown.”
Daniel Barkeley, founder of the Daily Currant, another fake news site, said his business hasn’t been harmed after Facebook implemented its new rules. “We did see a suspicious decline in our reach around the time of the January announcement,” he said. “We've since seen that restriction go away.”
Barkeley said he spoke with Facebook about the new policy, but walked away believing the company wasn’t clear on the right approach to fighting the problem. “My impression from that conversation was that they were still struggling to deal with this issue and they hadn't found the right solution yet,” he said. “They're aware of all the complexities and they're working on it.”
Decent money awaits those who can play this game successfully, since the stories by definition take zero reporting and, as in some of the cases cited above, can spread like wildfire if they hit the right tone.
One advertising executive, provided with a list of the fake sites by BuzzFeed News, found three that were making money through the industry’s automated auction markets. The average cost per thousand ad views on these sites, he said, is $1.25. For comparison sake, low-tier ad space would run around 50 cents, while premium is about $2. “By no means are they getting premium [prices], but they’re also not getting bargain basement,” the advertising executive said. Six of the sites, the executive added, were on various buyer blacklists.
Coler said he makes enough money to live off the sites he runs, but has always held another job along with running them. Plus, he adds that he’s doing it to make a point.
For the liberal Californian, fake news started as a way to seed misinformation into right-wing blogs, displaying how hungry they were to create controversy. But now he sees it as a broader commentary on the media in general. “Where are you getting your other information if one your stories that you pulled is straight fiction?” he said, referring to the New York Times editorial.
Coler believes Facebook is fighting a losing battle, doomed to fail no matter what it does. “They can shut down National Report. Of course they can do that,” he said. “But I could have 100 domains set up in a week, and are they going to stop every one of those? Are they now going to read content from every site and determine which ones are true and which ones are selling you a lie? I don't see that happening. That's not the way that the internet works.”
A previous version of this story quoted Jestin Coler under the name he provided, Allen Montgomery, which was fake.