Hoax, conspiracy, propaganda, or just a moneymaker for Macedonian teenagers? The definition of fake news has been debated to death since the election. But that debate has mostly referred to one thing: the spread of inaccurate, misleading, or otherwise invented articles passed as real news. The fake news conversation has taken place in the realm of words, but that’s missing a big part of the story. Much of the content that circulates on Facebook are images, often memes.
What’s in a meme? Memes are built for social media, and for viral sharing. They typically combine an image with big, block letters. They’re not attached to an article, and there’s often no way to trace their source. And while Facebook’s algorithm is notoriously elusive, it seems to favor images and video over text; images have the potential to reach more readers than articles—whether fake, real, un-partisan or hyper-partisan.
Take, for example, the most-shared post on Breitbart’s Facebook page in 2016:
The post’s implication is that while Democrats vilify Republicans, Democrats are the ones who riot, beat innocent voters, destroy property, and torch American flags. But it doesn’t say so outright.
This post was shared more than half a million times. By comparison, the most-shared article link on Breitbart’s Facebook page had 97,000 shares. In fact, on Breitbart’s Facebook page, images and videos are overwhelmingly more popular than links. Images made up just 5 percent of Breitbart’s total posts in 2016, but they accounted for half of the page’s most-shared posts.
Breitbart’s total Facebook posts for 2016
Breitbart’s 100 most-shared Facebook posts in 2016
Total shares from Breitbart’s Facebook posts in 2016
In other words, although Breitbart posted 12 times more links out of Facebook than images and videos combined, images and videos account for 79 percent of the total shares out of these top 100 posts. This disparity is even greater when you sum up the total shares of those 100 posts.
While Breitbart is a partisan news site and not explicitly a generator of fake news, this type of content sometimes hardly resembles news. Take the second-most-shared Breitbart post of 2016, from July, shared 218,000 times by December 31:
Hillary Clinton was cleared by the FBI. Bill Clinton and Loretta Lynch met on a plane. But Breitbart implies causality by putting those two facts next to each other, overlaid on a triumphant photo of Hillary Clinton that has nothing to do with the events referenced. Breitbart’s caption to this photo is “***UNPRECEDENTED CORRUPTION***.” There is no date on the photo itself, no attribution to Breitbart, and no context. A reverse-image Google search comes up with hundreds of similar memes that overlay white text on this same image.
What’s more, Breitbart explicitly aims to be shared as widely as possible. In August, Breitbart launched a “We are Breitbart” Instagram page, which Breitbart News Editor-in-Chief Alexander Marlow described as “digital ‘ammunition’ to blast” across social media. From Breitbart’s own article:
“Conservatives often ask, ‘How can I help break Establishment Media’s stranglehold and get the truth to Americans who need it?’” says Marlow. “The answer is simple and powerful: follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and now Instagram and share and blast the digital ‘bullets’ we provide for you far and wide. It works—and Establishment media are taking notice.”
In effect, Breitbart fans are encouraged to share pieces of information without context in order to break the existing media structures. And Facebook is helping them do it.
Out of the top 10 shared posts on Breitbart’s Facebook page, nine are images and one is a video. Only one features a image of Trump. One calls vice-presidential candidate Tim Kaine “creepy.” Three focus on the FBI investigation of Clinton, and two speak out against Obama’s apology to Japan for dropping atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki:
There are a few misleading claims this image makes. First, the idea that a million lives were saved by dropping the bombs is speculative (a video on Breitbart’s Facebook page specifies American lives–even more questionable). Second, this image does not appear to be of Hiroshima or Nagasaki. But perhaps that is irrelevant to the purpose of the image, which is to put words in the mouths of Breitbart’s viewership.
In December, Facebook announced partnerships with FactCheck.org, Snopes, and other organizations to fact-check and flag articles. But according to PhillyVoice, FactCheck.org says it found just four false stories in over a month of looking at flagged posts, and that “If he had a larger staff, [Director Eugene] Kiely said expanding to images and memes would be a logical move.”
Indeed. These readymade, easily alterable images are the perfect vessel for the spread of false information.
Breitbart’s 10 most-shared posts of 2016
***DEAR HIROSHIMA: OBAMA MAY BE SORRY, BUT AMERICA IS NOT***
Breitbart’s 5 most-shared links of 2016
#1 (13th most-shared post overall)
Fact-Check: FALSEIndeed, Clinton’s “ninety percent” claim is false according to her troubled charity’s own tax filings.
#2 (15th most-shared post overall)
#3 (20th most-shared post overall)
“Secret Service officers told at least one source that she began yelling, screaming obscenities, and pounding furniture….
#4 (21st most-shared post overall)
"…every time you spend $8 on 1 of their flavors you're lining the pockets of cop hating communists."
#5 (30th most-shared post overall)
"After witnessing 50 years of failure from the Democratic Party, compounded by a growing hostility to religion in their…
Pete Brown, senior research fellow at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism, contributed content analysis to this article as part of the Platforms and Publishers project, which receives funding from the MacArthur Foundation, the Open Society Foundations, the Knight Foundation, and Amy Abrams.Nausicaa Renner is digital editor of CJR.