Facebook has helped catapult sites like BuzzFeed and Upworthy into social stardom, boosting the visibility of media content on the News Feeds of millions of users and generating a deluge of traffic. But in this rising tide, some publishers have seen a particular lift: political sites on both the left and right.
As digital-native publishers have soared, media sites with a political bent are outpacing some viral competitors while picking up a few of their tricks along the way. Sites like Business Insiderhelped pioneer social media strategies, but outlets ranging from Glenn Beck's The Blaze to 38-year-old Mother Jones have been fast learners.
Internet publishers received a sudden influx of trafficInternet publishers received a sudden influx of traffic from users clicking through from the social network. Digital-native sites like BuzzFeed and Business Insider were thought to be the primary beneficiaries, having been pioneers in creating highly shareable content.
But "few sites have capitalized on this new audience channel like these political sites," Liam Corcoran, social media editor at NewsWhip, wrote in an email. "The likes of The Blaze and Think Progress manage to challenge the likes of USA Today and NPR, despite their relatively low monthly output. Each story is carefully crafted and presented to appeal to potential readers scrolling through their news feed."
Data from NewsWhip, which monitors the spread of news on social platforms, shows that Facebook interactions — likes, shares and comments — have risen dramatically for sites that tend to favor one side of the political spectrum.
Mother Jones stands out as the biggest riser, leaping from around 230,000 monthly Facebook interactions to more than 1.9 million, up more than 700% from August 2013 to May 2014. Fox News rose almost 280% in that same period, followed by increases of 172% from Huffington Post and 117% from Breitbart. Those outlets still lag far behind BuzzFeed, which received about 25 million interactions in May, topped by Huffington Post's 32 million.
Ben Dreyfuss, engagement editor for Mother Jones, said that the progressive magazine’s stance allows it to hit on topics in ways that make people want to share its content.
people, particularly on Facebook, like to share things that tell the world who they arepeople, particularly on Facebook, like to share things that tell the world who they are,” he said. “They might not live in Montana when Montana legalizes gay marriage, but they are a person that wants to the world to know they like gay marriage.”
Dreyfuss noted that social media interaction for media outlets is broadly rising, but Facebook has easily been the leader. Twitter shares in that same period increased at a much slower clip, with Mother Jones up about 100%, Fox News higher by 79% and Huffington Post boosted by 48%. Breitbart was the only site studied by NewsWhip to find more of a gain on Twitter than on Facebook, with a 234% increase.
“Traffic from a lot of other places is so flat for a lot of people that I think it's giving Facebook more and more power,” Dreyfuss said.
Facebook did not respond to requests for comment.
BuzzFeed and Business Insider have kept pace with the political sites, experiencing their own bumps of 153% and 297% respectively from August to May, but both fell from January to May, a loss mirrored only by The Blaze in the sites studied.
Politics are at the core of many of these sites, but a quick visit shows that the differences are often manifested in the types of stories covered as opposed to actual political topics.
Betsy Morgan, former CEO of The Huffington Post, is now a president at The Blaze, which Beck started in 2010 before leaving Fox News. She told Mashable that the key to its social media growth has been building an audience and understanding what it likes.
guns, religion and “stories of love and courage where the good guys win”guns, religion and “stories of love and courage where the good guys win” reverberate with her audience, not necessarily a steady stream of partisan political stories.
“We're a news and information site ... we're not out there as an opinion site masquerading as news and information,” Morgan said. “Our ethos, our values and principles, our window on the world is based on story selection. I’m going to do a lot more pro-Second Amendment stories than the Huffington Post."
The Blaze has also picked up on some of the habits of sites that pioneered viral content. A recentUpworthy-style headline read: “Ron Paul Says if Americans Understood This, the Hobby Lobby Contraception Case Would Likely Never Have Happened.”
The story logged more than 20,000 social media shares.
The rise of social media has coincided with an increase in partisanship among U.S. citizens. Pew Research recently published a study that showed that Americans are now polarized to a historic degree.
There are some studies that show social media isn't entirely the echo chamber that some worry it is. A massive 2012 study done with the assistance of Facebook highlighted that while users do tend to like, share and comment on more posts from close friends, they also interact with info from "weak ties" that they might not otherwise have seen.
Whether or not social media is encouraging partisanship is a sociological question without a simple answer, but a quick look at Facebook posts from various outlets shows a strong connection between the politics of the sites and the passions of its followers. But these posts attract some people from the other side of the debate as well.
This Mother Jones post on gun rights activists openly carrying rifles in Target stores has plenty of comments decrying the action, but also quite a few defending it.
This post from The Blaze on a police officer who entered private property and shot the property owner's dog garnered a similar outcry from the site's libertarian supporters, with a mix of commenters defending the police.
Regardless of the impact on the broader political discourse, it seems that the ability of political sites to incite action has helped them take advantage of Facebook's tweaks to favor outlets that engage users.
"While it may seem odd for political sites to be outranking the likes of CNN, BBC and other mainstream news organizations, it's not that surprising given their focus on social distribution," Corcoran wrote. "Most of these sites, big and small, understand the opportunity that exists in getting their content shared, not only by their fans and followers, but by the friends of those fans and followers."
Tags: BUSINESS, Facebook, MEDIA, POLITICS, SOCIAL MEDIA, Twitter