of
Blog Post

Engagement with Deceptive Sites on Facebook and Twitter Dropped in the First Months of 2021

May 25, 2021
11 min read
Photo credit: Wachiwit / Shutterstock.com

Engagement with content from deceptive sites on Facebook and Twitter retreated from last year’s historic highs during the first three months of 2021. On Twitter, the drop was dramatic: a 60 percent quarterly decline in shares of content from deceptive sites by “verified accounts.” On Facebook, interactions with content from deceptive sites dipped by 15 percent in the first quarter of 2021, reflecting a comparable decline in interactions with all U.S.-based sites on the platform. The changes were likely driven by platforms’ suspension of accounts and pages that have propagated deceptive content in the past as well as policy change such as prioritizing original news reporting within Facebook’s News Feed. At the same time, there was an increased concentration among Manipulators (see below) as The Daily Wire’s share of interactions grew from 13 to 22 percent.

Despite the decrease in overall engagement with deceptive sites, certain types of misinformation remained popular. The level of engagement with the top deceptive sites that focus on health and wellness remained similar to previous quarters, facilitating the further spread of deceptive information related to the coronavirus pandemic and global vaccination effort.

This research from GMF’s Digital New Deal project analyzes two kinds of deceptive sites: those that fail news outlet rating service NewsGuard’s test of repeatedly publishing content that is provably false (False Content Producers); and those that fail NewsGuard’s test of gathering and presenting information responsibly1 (Manipulators). For Facebook, the Digital New Deal project measures interactions (likes, comments, and shares) on posts that include links to deceptive sites. For Twitter, we analyze shares (tweets and retweets) by verified accounts (that is, blue check-marks) of links to deceptive sites.

Twitter

Verified account shares of links to deceptive sites plummeted in the first quarter of 2021, driven by declines among the top outlets, notably Gateway Pundit and Breitbart. Verified account shares had increased in 2019 and 2020, reaching a high in the fourth quarter of 2020. Most of those shares were generated by a few key influencer accounts, such as Donald Trump, Lin Wood, and Sydney Powell, many of which were suspended in the wake of the events of January 6.

Verified account shares of links to deceptive sites fell from 30 percent of all shares of links to U.S.-based sites in the fourth quarter of 2020 to 15 percent in the first quarter of 2021. This occurred as our sample of 106 trustworthy sites with perfect NewsGuard ratings increased their relative influence on Twitter. The trustworthy sites received 23 percent of all verified account link shares in the fourth quarter of 2020 and 27 percent in the first quarter of 2021.

Verified account shares of links to False Content Producers dropped by 66 percent between the fourth quarter of 2020 and the first quarter of 2021 (from 17 million to 5.8 million) while shares of links to Manipulators fell by 56 percent (from 30 million to 13 million).

Twitter Verified

Percent Change in Twitter Verified Accounts

Twitter Verified Account Shares

Below, we identify the Manipulators and False Content Producers that saw the biggest changes in verified account shares from the fourth quarter of 2020 to the first quarter of 2021, and, where possible, identify the underlying causes driving those shifts.

Biggest Change in Verified Account Shares Q1 2021–Q4 2020: Manipulators2

Outlet

Q1 2021 verified account shares

Q4 2020 verified account shares

Difference (Q1 2021 – Q4 2020)

breitbart.com

1,577,996

6,245,892

-4,667,896

foxnews.com

1,966,525

4,696,908

-2,730,383

bongino.com

110,599

2,001,465

-1,890,866

theepochtimes.com

887,104

2,704,209

-1,817,105

justthenews.com

915,506

2,723,761

-1,808,255

theblaze.com

282,747

826,230

-543,483

dailywire.com

453,887

982,365

-528,478

hannity.com

1,287,208

766,048

521,160

washingtontimes.com

304,120

768,799

-464,679

thepostmillennial.com

470,016

825,814

-355,798

All other outlets

4,761,013

7,350,302

-2,589,289

Total

13,016,721

29,891,793

-16,875,072

Breitbart:

  • Twitter suspended many of the accounts that drove engagement with content from Breitbart in the fourth quarter of 2020, including that of Donald Trump and several QAnon accounts.
  • Breitbart’s best-performing content in the fourth quarter of 2020 advanced falsehoods about election fraud. It is possible that there was less interest in Breitbart’s post-election content.

Fox News:

  • Fox News lost cable TV viewers in the wake of the 2020 election, as Newsmax and OANN became more popular. It is possible there was a similar shift away from foxnews.com content on Twitter.
  • Fox News’ most popular articles on Twitter in the fourth quarter of 2020 were about Hunter Biden, the presidential debates, and voter-fraud claims. It is possible that there was less interest in Fox News’ post-election content.

Bongino:

  • Dan Bongino’s Twitter account had been the biggest driver of engagement to bongino.com. On January 7, he received a 12-hour suspension from Twitter. Bongino, who is an investor in Parler, chose not to return to Twitter.

The Epoch Times:

  • Twitter suspended many of the accounts that drove engagement with content from The Epoch Times in the fourth quarter of 2020, including those of Michael Flynn, Sydney Powell, Lin Wood, and several QAnon accounts.

Just The News:

  • Twitter suspended many of the accounts that drove engagement with content from Just The News in the fourth quarter of 2020, including those of Donald Trump and Paul Sperry.
Biggest Change in Verified Account Shares Q1 2021–Q4 2020: False Content Producers

Outlet

Q1 2021 verified account shares

Q4 2020 verified account shares

Difference (Q1 2021 – Q4 2020)

thegatewaypundit.com

1,179,954

7,225,499

-6,045,545

thefederalist.com

646,900

1,864,168

-1,217,268

newsmax.com

370,820

1,042,094

-671,274

truepundit.com

289,720

906,830

-617,110

djhjmedia.com

83,608

402,378

-318,770

zerohedge.com

443,645

741,650

-298,005

uncoverdc.com

8,718

286,978

-278,260

theconservativetreehouse.com

58,890

289,088

-230,198

gellerreport.com

81,965

306,330

-224,365

davidharrisjr.com

161,748

357,217

-195,469

All other outlets

2,454,012

3,594,064

-1,140,052

Total

5,779,980

17,016,296

-11,236,316

 

The Gateway Pundit:

  • Twitter suspended the account of Jim Hoft, The Gateway Pundit’s editor-in-chief, in February 2021. Hoft’s account was the biggest driver of engagement with content from The Gateway Pundit.
  • The Gateway Pundit’s best-performing content in the fourth quarter of 2020 advanced falsehoods about election fraud. Verified account shares of links to the Gateway Pundit began to decline before Hoft’s suspension, perhaps as public interest in election content waned.

The Federalist, Newsmax, DJHJ Media, and Zero Hedge:

  • Twitter suspended many of the accounts that drove engagement with content from these sites in the fourth quarter of 2020, including those of Donald Trump, Lin Wood, Sydney Powell, and several QAnon accounts.

Facebook

Interactions with deceptive sites on Facebook dipped by 15 percent in the first quarter of 2021—reflecting a comparable decline among all U.S.-based sites. The drop was dominated by the fall in interactions with content from several of the largest outlets and countered by a surge in interactions for The Daily Wire.

This quarter marks the third consecutive quarter in which there was an overall drop in deceptive site interactions. Most of that decline was caused by a 9 percent decrease in interactions with Manipulators (which make up a bigger share of deceptive sites) but interactions with the smaller number of False Content Producers fell more precipitously (by 51 percent). False Content Producers ended the quarter with lower interactions than in the run-up to the 2016 election.

However, the share of interactions stemming from our sample of trustworthy outlets increased, continuing a trend seen over the past few quarters, perhaps a result of Facebook’s efforts to prioritize articles that contain new and original reporting within News Feed.

Facebook Interactions

Percent Change in Facebook

Facebook Interactions 2

Below, we identify the Manipulators and False Content Producers that saw the biggest changes in Facebook interactions from the fourth quarter of 2020 to the first quarter of 2021, and, where possible, identify the underlying causes driving those shifts.

Biggest Change in Interactions Q1 2021–Q4 2020: Manipulators

Outlet

Q1 2021 Interactions

Q4 2020 Interactions

Difference (Q1 2021–Q4 2020)

dailywire.com

203,033,184

137,373,378

+65,659,806

trendingpolitics.com

5,560,544

23,500,903

-17,940,359

foxnews.com

196,615,237

212,170,444

-15,555,207

theepochtimes.com

16,891,906

31,503,787

-14,611,881

cnsnews.com

14,235,569

27,446,461

-13,210,892

bongino.com

5,963,444

18,072,378

-12,108,934

breitbart.com

72,120,272

83,608,117

-11,487,845

theblaze.com

50,560,492

61,748,856

-11,188,364

lawenforcementtoday.com

5,723,527

13,394,580

-7,671,053

tmz.com

21,264,171

28,917,508

-7,653,337

All other outlets

351,877,397

398,364,418

-46,487,021

Total

943,845,743

1,036,100,830

-92,255,087

 

Daily Wire:

  • The Daily Wire’s interactions increased in the wake of the election and remained dominant, growing from 13 to 22 percent of all Manipulator interactions. The Daily Wire was the top English-language web publisher every month between December 2020 and March 2021 according to NewsWhip.
  • Most of the Daily Wire’s interactions come from one of its many official outlet pages or the pages for its writers Ben Shapiro, Matt Walsh, and Michael Knowles. During the first quarter of 2021, there was unusual behavior with the pages for the Daily Wire writers. Ben Shapiro and Matt Walsh received 1.6 million and 43,000 new page likes respectively on February 1. Michael Knowles received 148,000 new page likes on March 23. These pages typically have changes in daily page likes in the hundreds or low thousands. This raises the possibility that some of the increase in the Daily Wire’s interactions could be due to inauthentic tactics.

Trending Politics:

  • Trending Politics’ interactions fell in December 2020 and that decline was sustained through the first quarter of 2021.
  • Trending Politics’ top articles in the fourth quarter of 2020 advanced false claims of election fraud. Its top articles in the first quarter of 2021 were about articles of impeachment being filed against Joe Biden, troops sleeping in parking garages in the wake of the events of January 6, and Trump’s acquittal in his impeachment trial. It is possible that Trending Politics’ interactions declined because its content in 2021 was less engaging than in previous quarters.

Fox News:

  • Fox News lost TV viewers in the wake of the 2020 election, as Newsmax and OANN became more popular. It is possible there was a similar shift away from foxnews.com content on Facebook.

Epoch Times:

  • Facebook took action against The Epoch Times for inauthentic tactics in the past. In January 2021, Facebook also removed two pages pushing election fraud conspiracies. The pages mainly shared Epoch Times YouTube content, but they may have also shared links to TheEpochTimes.com. There is no evidence of Facebook suspending other pages.
  • The Epoch Times transitioned towards alt-platforms in early 2021, which could mean the site is devoting less energy to promoting its content on Facebook.

Breitbart:

  • Facebook’s suspension of Donald Trump’s page contributed to the fall in Breitbart’s interactions. In the fourth quarter of 2020, Trump’s page shared a link to breitbart.com 64 times, accounting for 9.4 million interactions (11 percent of Breitbart’s total interactions for the quarter). Trump’s page shared a link to breitbart.com just twice in the first quarter of 2021, garnering 400,029 interactions.
Biggest Change in Interactions Q1 2021–Q4 2020: False Content Producers

Outlet

Q1 2021 interactions

Q4 2020 interactions

Difference (Q1 2021 – Q4 2020)

redstateobserver.com

3,427,231

25,332,164

-21,904,933

illicitinfo.com

295,031

9,308,423

-9,013,392

djhjmedia.com

1,918,347

10,064,833

-8,146,486

davidharrisjr.com

779,038

8,391,775

-7,612,737

thefederalist.com

9,455,894

14,694,080

-5,238,186

lifesitenews.com

722,590

4,614,925

-3,892,335

thegatewaypundit.com

6,014,384

9,780,140

-3,765,756

returntonow.net

1,503,816

5,237,807

-3,733,991

rushlimbaugh.com

1,434,415

4,631,947

-3,197,532

oann.com

391,024

2,815,193

-2,424,169

All other outlets

54,140,051

69,835,200

-15,695,149

Total

80,081,821

164,706,487

-84,624,666

 

Red State Observer:

  • Red State Observer is a news aggregator, and it was likely impacted by Facebook’s January 12 update to its Original News Content policy. According to the new policy, “news articles that do not contain new original reporting or analysis will now receive less distribution in News Feed.” Original reporting includes “exclusive source materials, significant analysis, new interviews or the creation of original visuals.”
  • Almost all interactions with Red State Observer come from one Facebook page, Donald Trump For President. It is possible that Facebook reduced the distribution of the page’s posts, such as for misinformation strikes.

Illicit Info:

  • Most major web browsers serve a privacy warning to users trying to access IllicitInfo.com (see below). The warning may have caused fewer users to visit the site and thereby decreased sharing of Illicit Info’s content on Facebook.
  • Facebook suspended pages associated with Illicit Info in previous years, including Hillary For Prison and Donald Trump Is Our President. These suspensions occurred before June 2020. It is unclear if Facebook suspended other pages linked to Illicit Info more recently.

Connection is not private

DJHJ Media and David Harris Jr:

  • Both sites receive many of their interactions from David J Harris Jr.’s Facebook page. The page is active but received fewer interactions in 2021 compared to previous months. It is possible that Facebook reduced the distribution of its content.

The Federalist:

  • The Federalist’s interactions declined at a steady pace between the election and March 2021. One possible explanation for the decline is that a page called “US Chronicle” shared content from The Federalist during the fourth quarter of 2020 but stopped by the first quarter of 2021. US Chronicle has not posted any content since April 10, which suggests Facebook may have temporarily banned the page.

Return To Now:

  • Before December 2020, Return To Now’s articles were being shared by a coordinated network of health and lifestyle Facebook pages. Most of the pages were taken down after GMF Digital research revealed inauthentic behavior between the pages and a group of deceptive sites. There is no evidence that Return To Now paid the Facebook pages, so it was not mentioned in the blog. However, the page takedowns likely impacted Return To Now’s interactions.

About This Project

In October, GMF’s Digital New Deal project launched an ongoing project that monitors engagement on social media with deceptive sites that masquerade as journalism. The Digital New Deal project partnered with NewsGuard, a nonpartisan service that rates news and information websites for their reliability, to monitor two kinds of deceptive sites:

  • Sites that NewsGuard determined repeatedly published content that is provably false (we call them False Content Producers).
  • Sites that NewsGuard determined failed to gather and present information responsibly without crossing its threshold of repeatedly publishing false content (we call them Manipulators).

We analyze data from NewsWhip, a social media intelligence firm. For Facebook, we measure interactions (likes, comments, and shares) on posts that include links to deceptive sites. For Twitter, we analyze shares (tweets and retweets) by verified accounts (that is, blue check-marks) of links to deceptive sites. These metrics do not always correlate with prevalence, as platforms can limit the visibility of deceptive content. However, interactions and shares are the best available metrics to analyze engagement on Facebook and Twitter, respectively.


1. We exclude from this category those that also repeatedly publish false content in order to separate outlets that invent false information from those that conceal and distort information.

2. On March 18, 2021, NewsGuard determined that The Western Journal gathers and presents information responsibly. As a result, we removed Western Journal from our list of Manipulators beginning on March 18. The Western Journal is included in our data prior to that date. The Western Journal saw modest changes in its Twitter verified account shares and Facebook interactions, and is not among our top ten outlets for biggest change in engagement on either platform.