The Bible Still Outperforms Facebook in Delivering Fake News


We’ve reached the stage where articles about fake news themselves engage in fake news tactics.

Buzzfeed’s Craig Silverman — who has written many of the stories on fake news in recent weeks — had Ipsos do a poll querying whether or not people believed some of the real and fake news headlines that got shared around during the election. He presented the results, in both tweets and his BuzzFeed article on the results, this way:


But that’s not actually what the poll showed, though a number of people — even some of the people who are the most dedicated serious commentators on fake news — seemed to believe the headline without reading the article closely (that is, they treated it precisely like fake news consumers might, including sharing it before they had evaluated it critically).

Rather, the poll showed that of the people who remember a given headline, 75% believed it. But only about 20% remembered any of these headlines (which had been shared months earlier). For example, 72% of the people who remembered the claim that an FBI Agent had been found dead believed it, but only 22% actually remembered it; so just 16% of those surveyed remembered and believed it. The recall rate is worse for the stories with higher belief rates. Just 12% of respondents remembered and believed the claim that Trump sent his own plane to rescue stranded marines. Just 8% remembered and believed the story that Jim Comey had a Trump sign in his front yard, and that made up just 123 people out of a sample of 1809 surveyed.

Furthermore, with just one exception, people recalled the real news stories tested more than they did the fake and with one laudable exception (that Trump would protect LGBTQ citizens; it is “true” that he said it but likely “false” that he means it), people believed real news at rates higher than they did fake. The most people — 22% — recalled the fake story about the FBI Agent, comparable to the 23% who believed some real story about girl-on-girl pictures involving Melania. But 34% remembered Trump would “absolutely” register Muslims and 57% remembered Trump’s claim he wasn’t going to take a salary.

The exception should be an exception, because Buzzfeed shouldn’t have treated it as news anyway. Just 11% recalled Mike Morell’s endorsement, titled “I ran the CIA. Now I’m endorsing Hillary Clinton,” which appeared in NYT’s opinion section. All endorsements should be considered opinion, and this one happens to be from a proven liar with a history of torture apology, so for the rare people who knew anything about Morell, I would hope his opinion would carry limited weight.

What all of this shows is that the fake news headline claims Buzzfeed made last month, that “Fake Election News Stories Outperformed Real News On Facebook,” should be revised. What that clickbait story actually showed was that the top fake stories received more “engagement” — shares, reactions, and comments — on Facebook than the top real news. But the last paragraph of the article admitted that might not be the same as actual consumption or even non-Facebook moderated engagement.

It’s important to note that Facebook engagement does not necessarily translate into traffic. This analysis was focused on how the best-performing fake news about the election compared with real news from major outlets on Facebook. It’s entirely possible — and likely — that the mainstream sites received more traffic to their top-performing Facebook content than the fake news sites did. As as the Facebook spokesman noted, large news sites overall see more engagement on Facebook than fake news sites.

What this newly reported poll at least suggests (one would need to do a more scientific study to test this hypothesis) is that even the most shared fake news was not really retained, whereas more of the real news was. And that’s true even in spite of the fact that Buzzfeed/Ipsos did not test the most popular real news (in reality this, too, is an opinion piece), “Trump’s history of corruption is mind-boggling. So why is Clinton supposedly the corrupt one?” That’s a pity, because it’d be interesting to see how many and what kind of people remembered and believed that one.

Effectively, then, Buzzfeed was testing the most popular fake news (about the Pope endorsing Trump, with 960,000 engagements) against the third ranking real news (the Melania girl-on-girl story, with 531,000 engagements) and real news still performed better overall in terms of recall. Which would seem to suggest these Facebook engagements don’t actually track how much “news” — fake or not — people will consciously retain (I admit unconscious retention is probably an issue too).

Which is how I get to my claim that the Bible outperforms Facebook for spreading false news. After all, as recently as 2014, 42% of Americans believed in creationism, while just 19% believed in evolution. That number is changing quickly (importantly, as more purportedly fake news consuming youngsters who don’t consider themselves religious get asked). Nevertheless, a significantly larger chunk of the country believes that God plunked us down fully-formed into Eden than believe that an FBI Agent involved in the Clinton case died in a murder suicide.

We should expect more people to believe what they read in the Bible, because it is a story that gets reinforced week after week by people with some authority in the community. It also gets reinforced in institutions like the Creation Museum, where I took the picture of white Adam and Eve above. For people who believe in creationism, their religion is fundamentally tied to their self-identity in a way that politics might not be. It is precisely for that reason it provides important counterpoint to these fake news stories. Especially given the way that a preference for religious stories over scientific ones poisons so much of our ability to deal with crises like climate change.

Don’t get me wrong: algorithmically-delivered sensationalism is a problem (as are polls that get shared to make claims about headlines they don’t really support). But it is one of many problems with our politics, and the evidence from this poll actually suggests it isn’t yet the most urgent one.

Update: Pope Francis, who believes the notion of evolution can coexist with that of creation, just issued a statement calling those who spread shit news sinners.

Francis told the Belgian Catholic weekly “Tertio” that spreading disinformation was “probably the greatest damage that the media can do” and using communications for this rather than to educate the public amounted to a sin.

Using precise psychological terms, he said scandal-mongering media risked falling prey to coprophilia, or arousal from excrement, and consumers of these media risked coprophagia, or eating excrement.


“I think the media have to be very clear, very transparent, and not fall into – no offence intended – the sickness of coprophilia, that is, always wanting to cover scandals, covering nasty things, even if they are true,” he said.

Update: Matthew Ingram covers this issue at Fortune.

23 replies
  1. bloopie2 says:

    I read your link to the Pope’s speech on evolution vs. creation, and now I have this question:  Do you honestly believe that anyone who believes in Creationism (per se, not taking into account other things that such believers might believe) is stupid?  The ancient Greeks used the word ύλη to mean “matter” or, colloquially, “stuff”.  Where did the starting ύλη, from which evolution evolved, come from?  The Big Bang came out of nowhere?  I haven’t quite figured all that out, and there are aspects of the Bible that I believe; so, does that mean that I am stupid and controlled by Fake News?  (I know, that’s four questions, not one, but you did bring up the topic of religion when you disparaged a huge portion of the population.  Just sayin’.)

    • emptywheel says:

      Where did I disparage a huge portion of the population?

      What I said was that 42% of Americans believe in creationism. While I didn’t describe the results in depth, that was a reference to hard creationism, that God put humans on this earth in current form (thus my “plunked down in Eden” comment). If you click through to the poll, you’ll see there are another 31% of the country believes that humans evolved with God guiding the process, which seems to be what you’re describing. In fact, when this poll came out, a lot of people compared the 42% with Francis’ statement on evolution from that year, noting that they were more conservative than him on this point.

      I also did not say these people were stupid. Indeed, I said that this is tied to their identity, which is a totally different thing. One reason I made that point is because all these debates about real and fake news misunderstand how and why humans consume narratives, which is largely about the meaning of life we pursue. For those who read the Bible for the instructions on life (which are not news except insofar as Jesus gets quoted as delivering it, just like Trump gets quoted as saying he rescued some Marines) and follow them, we’re probably better off. Sadly, a lot of people who claim to be religious don’t follow the Golden Rule, and instead use the Bible to define those against whom they define themselves.

      Here’s the gig. The US is unlikely most other countries in that we have neither an identity based myth (that the Czechs come from a dude named Cech, for example), or a defining religion (the Sauds as the Custodian of the Two Mosques, for example). Instead we had this awesome myth that arose out of our revolution (and like all myths, included great big blind spots, most notably slavery and the genocide of Native Americans in inequality of women). That myth got doubly reinforced after WWII because we saved the world and brought human rights everywhere. But since then, the myth isn’t working the same, for a variety of different reasons.

      A lot of our so-called “real” news replicates the myth of American exceptionalism in a way that no long resonates. That’s interesting, because that’s some of the stuff that is justifiably discredited.

      What we’re left with is either a defensive posture (the post 9/11 victimization based on the killing of 3000 that we use to justifying killing millions) or a muddle, especially since we don’t live up to our exceptionalist standards anymore (explicitly as opposed to secretly).

      What we’re undergoing, among other things, is the fact that we don’t have a working myth right now. Obama and Trump both won by promising one, a substantially similar one. But in both cases there were some gaps in that myth.

      • bloopie2 says:

        Sorry, I missed the percentages issue and that puts a different take on a lot of your post.  And I agree that we all as news consumers need to be very careful.  Still, my point was that you believe that “hard creationism” is false (fake) news (even your headline refers to the Bible delivering “fake news”) and you note that 42% of Americans believe in that doctrine.  Therefore, you are effectively telling 42% of Americans that they are swayed by or influenced by “fake news”.  Come on, that isn’t disparagement?  (Now, it may be justified disparagement, but it is still disparagement.)
        (Note, you didn’t cite in your paragraph all three of the possibilities–“creationism” “humans evolving with God guiding the process”, and ”evolution”.  You only listed 42% creationism and 19% evolution, so as a result I, a casual reader, did not realize there was a third, intermediate, choice. I respectfully suggest that said omission was improper and contributed to me being misled.)

    • Ed Walker says:

      Let me phrase that another way. Do you think anything useful comes from believing in creationism? I can’t think of anything useful at all. In fact, believing in something that impossible conditions the mind to believe all sorts of Iron Age ideas about reality. Have we made progress with those ideas? No. We made progress by looking at the natural world with clear eyes unclouded by magic.

      • bloopie2 says:

        If it’s bad to believe in “something that impossible” (referring to Creationism), then please tell me, did the universe I live in, instead, start with a Big Bang that came out of nowhere?  That strikes me as being just as impossible.  Technical assistance, please.

        • Bill Michtom says:

          Science deals with unknowns and tries to provide answers. Your questions about what preceded the Big Bang ignores that.

  2. Bitter Angry Drunk says:

    Honestly didn’t realize that FBI agent story was fake. Whatever Gawker is now ran with that. Of course they also peddled the WaPo PropOrNot garbage, so I guess I shouldn’t be too surprised.

  3. Rayne says:

    IMO, this may be the most important part of the equation:

    We should expect more people to believe what they read in the Bible, because it is a story that gets reinforced week after week by people with some authority in the community. …

    Bold mine. I’ll point to Bob Altemeyer’s work on authoritarian personalities; some percentage, roughly 25% of the population at any time, is authoritarian. And look at the percentage of eligible voters who voted for Trump — not quite half of the 55% of voters who turned out, quite close to that 25% of the adult population. This segment of the population will be vulnerable to messages issued by authority figures, especially when those messages are repeated frequently and further validated by repetition by others in their communities of trust.

    Infrastructure for this same group will further enforce the messaging; if one lives in small town America and their social circle belongs to the same organizations repeats the same messages (ex: churches, Christian-based civics clubs, so on) in tandem with online circles in social media, there’s little escape.

    Especially when “official” media outlets like Fox News and CNN on television combined with Clear Channel talk radio reinforce the messages in some way.

    Until the network on and offline of authority figures is broken and new alternative authority figures are inserted, there’s no break in their belief systems. We’re watching an insertion right now, with Trump using his acquired authority legitimized by 13 years on television, his relationship to wrestling and beauty pageants, his commercial branding, to disrupt the Republican Party’s lock on conservative authoritarians. Not all beliefs will be shattered — complete disorientation would work against a successful insertion. Appeals will be made to the lowest level of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs to encourage rapid adoption of the inserted bearer and messages (and I’ll bet we have yet to see the worse of this particular ploy).

    Why didn’t Democrats do better with authoritarian voters? Because they lacked adequate charismatic leadership combined with an effective approach legitimizing their authority in the eyes of these voters. They lacked a central command structure combined with a widespread distribution network perceived as authoritative. And for the lack of these things — charismatic leadership, effective approach, centralized command, and a widespread distribution network — they can’t overcome fake news validated by perceived authority figures.

    Really need somebody who’s an amalgam of the Pope, Al Gore, and Beyonce if we’re going to break the lock on crap pushed by (Bible+Facebook+Fox News+CNN+TalkRadio).

  4. bloopie2 says:

    I live in the urban East and am essentially never exposed to the kind of thinking you disparage.  Is that bad?  Or is it acceptable because the urban East thinking is “correct?”

      • bloopie2 says:

        Sorry, it was a reply to Rayne’s 3:23 pm comment about small town America.  That was a solid comment by the way, I usually preface my nit-picking with such a statement because it’s usually appropriate.

        • Rayne says:

          How is it disparagement when communities across the interior of this country are factually small and defined by common features like a few churches, a small number of civic groups, and a limited amount of broadcast media compared to more urbanized coastal areas? I’ve lived in these communities here in the Midwest — some of them actually look alike, with a town hall, a grange hall or civic center, a church or two toward the center of town, schools toward the outside edges.

          Circleville OH

          Jasper IN

          Marshall MI

          Pella IA (So Dutch I probably should have compared this to Holland MI)

          Fergus Falls MN

          Perryville MO

          You need to get out more, bloopie. Go walkabout. But wait until summer because the Midwest’s winter weather can turn on a dime.


  5. bloopie2 says:

    I’ve now (sad to say) watched numerous Christmas movies on Hallmark Channel this “holiday season” and I believe that not one of them has even alluded to the fact that Christ is “the reason for the season”.  It’s always “Christmas is about family, and discovering the good in people” or whatever.  Do they believe viewers would be turned off by even a minute of film in which a character expresses her religion?  Should I sic Trump on Hallmark, convince them to add a shot of religion here and there, help make America great again?  More importantly for this thread, isn’t it Fake News to push shows like that on millions of empty-minded viewers, so maybe I should I sic Emptywheel on Hallmark, convince them they are spreading fake news, help make America great again?  Youse guys want to join forces?

  6. bloopie2 says:

    Curious about the thoughts of the learned bloggers herein as to a recent article in which the author argues that China, not the Middle East, is the defining geopolitical issue of our time.  Especially in light of Trump’s apparent pivot toward Taiwan.  It’s titled “The Thucydides Trap: Are the U.S. and China Headed for War?” (search news for the title–whenever I try to post a link I get robotomized). The article notes that China is already a bigger economic power than the US in many aspects, its growth never slowed down during the Great Recession, and it is continuing to grow much faster than the US with no signs of slowing in sight (disturbing statistics for anyone who sees the US as the one and only Great Power).  China has expressly stated its goal of becoming a superpower equal in stature to the US and appears to be well on the way there.  And, of course, it has no love for the US, what with the way the US has treated it (and the rest of the world) for the last century.  Is his thesis likely to be true, or is it crap, or what?

    • emptywheel says:

      Hard to tell which is the biggest threat so far, because we don’t know what kind of mayhem Trump will cause. China certainly has pushed back, hard, twice, on Trump. I do take solace in the Branstad pick for China, because it’ll mean that our Ambassador will have a real relationship with Xi.

      So who knows?

  7. Evangelista says:


    “creationism” and “evolution” do not equate. Neither is exclusive ot the other, and both are believed in universally.

    “Creationism” and “Evolution” (capitalization indicating compositions of religious beliefs) are what it appears you were meaning to compare. Or “Intelligent Design” and “Evolution”, “Intelligent Design” being what “Creationism” evolved to. Without capitalization, evolution means change, with a development component, and creationism denotes intellectual fabrication as a defining phenomenon (creation is intellectual fabrication, the ism is phenomenonizing).

    “Fake news” is, at present, only a propaganda designation; and is ephemeral and undefined, epithetic, or expletive, wherefore it has no actual, or legitimate, definition. Its definition is whatever may be in mind, at the moment, in the mind of the assigner.

    “Fake news” is not legitimately assignable in any literary context, except as its own ephemerality, its own imaginary construction, whatever it might be in an instance assignment. For this “fake news” is not operable as an assignment to define any literary construction, or any construction in literature. The Garden of Eden, for example, which you reference, is literature. Its existence is real in literature, for which it cannot be fake. This is also the case for “The Big Bang”, and all of the Evolution theories.

    For this the bottom line is that the Bible cannot out perform Facebook in delivering “fake news”, because the Bible delivers literature. Facebook delivers “fake news” wherever a poster posts fake information with intent to fake out readers or viewers. Also, wherever any news information is determined, by a receiver, to be fake, the information is fake news, to the determiner. It may be offered to others as fake news, by the determiner, with hope to garner supporters, others who will share the assignment. None of this, the determining, the assigning, or the accepting has anything to do with the actual veracity, or reality, of the subject itself.

    • Rayne says:

      News (fake or not) and the Bible are both memetic material — replicable cultural content, transferred from human to human.

      Both news (fake or not) and the Bible (as well as doctrinal materials based on the Bible) can be shaped by political as well as religious ideology. Biblical materials may be stickier given the length of time and frequency some Christian adherents are exposed to its memes and punished or rewarded for their alignment with Biblical memes pushed by adherents’ sects. (The same would apply to other religions’ texts, like the Quran or the Vedas.)

      Both may contain some factual material. News will contain more fact than ‘fake news’.

      With regard to “both are believed in universally” — No. Many followers of different religions do not subscribe to evolution; “Creationism” refers to a fundamentalist Christian dogma based on the Book of Genesis, which by definition means non-Christians may not subscribe to “Creationism.”

      With regard to capitalizing evolution — No. Seriously pedantic crap since evolution (meaning change over time) is exactly what evolutionary theory is based upon.

      With regard to ‘fake news’ as propaganda label — No. Either something is real or it’s fake, and fake means false or untrue. ‘Fake news’ is that which contains deliberate untruth and is, therefore, disinformation or misinformation if not propaganda itself.

      With regard to ‘fake news’ in literary context — how about we wait for an MFA or doctor of literature or two to offer a more informed opinion? Oh, wait…that would be DR. EMPTYWHEEL.

      With regard to the Bible as literature — see my previous point.

    • emptywheel says:

      No. I guess, given your and bloopie2’s comments, I should have explained what the poll showed rather than linked to it with the expectation people would check it before assuming I made such distinctions.

      The poll tested hard creationism (humans never evolved), soft creationism (humans evolved under god’s direction), and evolution. The first category is 42%, second is 31%. I invoked only the first — which is a disbelief in evolution — in my comment.

      • Evangelista says:

        Sorry, I think I addressed too many different elements in one comment.

        The primary point is that “fake” is both active and adversarial.  To fake something requires to act and act against, to act deliberately and in doing so to deprecate something acted against.  Faking requires falsification, not only false.  False is not fake until it is deviously purposed.

        “Faking” without malice, is copying, which may be emulating, or may be adopting.  For example, if someone wished to argue a point internal in Biblical Creation context, let us say that the Original Sin committed in the Garden of Eden was Eve’s altruism in giving of the Fruit to Adam (altruism is the most consistently punished action among Mankind, and even God, who altruistically created the world is daily punished for that sin, and the Garden of Eden story is of God being punished for His sin of altruistically creating that paradise for Adam and Eve, etc.) the arguer would have to adopt the context, crediting the story as true, without faking, to make the argument.  The same is true in literature, for which if we engaged in assigning meanings to the ingredients going into the witches brew in “Macbeth”, however far we went into left-field, there would be no fakery or faking, even though there is no reality in any of the subject, Macbeth, the witches, witches in general, witches’ brews in general or the “East London Soup-Kitchen Standard” soup described being prepared.

        Essentially, anything anyone believes sincerely is not and cannot be fake.  A sincere belief that the whole Bible is literally true is not fake because it is sincere, even though the Bible has internal contradictions that make the belief logically impossible.  For faking and fakery there has to be duplicity;  intent to fake, to falsify, to pass one’s as-an-art-student made copy of Mona Lisa as the real thing.  No sincere believer in any belief believes falsely, except in the view of an antagonist, who assigns to deprecate or aggressively, to pick a fight.

  8. jerryy says:

    Re Rayne:

    … “Many followers of different religions do not subscribe to evolution; “Creationism” refers to a fundamentalist Christian dogma based on the Book of Genesis, which by definition means non-Christians may not subscribe to “Creationism.”

    That is not exactly true. Some members of the Jewish and Islamic faiths also hold to that idea.

    Here is a quickie summary:

    ps. the reply button is not replying and there is no log-in button.

  9. Sundog says:

    In response to this post
    bloopie2 says:
    December 7, 2016 at 3:42 pm

    If it’s bad to believe in “something that impossible” (referring to Creationism), then please tell me, did the universe I live in, instead, start with a Big Bang that came out of nowhere? That strikes me as being just as impossible. Technical assistance, please.

    The difference is that one of them is testable and prove-able regardless of how “impossible” it seems. The other is not. Also, scientists aren’t sure that the Big Bang came out of “nowhere.” They can only provide what the data shows, so far, based on the current limits of our knowledge. It’s by always investigating further that we discover more about how our universe operates through the scientific method and thereby refine our previous models.

  10. greengiant says:

    To paraphrase Steve Bannon,  first we have to destroy America “to go back to where we used to be when we were great”.   Trump’s campaign CEO said they were going to use internet and social media ( aka primo channel of “fake news” ) to win the election.   His old gig Breitbart was spreading James O’keefe’s project Veritas reveal of Clinton campaign’s dirty tricks operative Creamer.    Another example is the Nov 4.  reports of impending Clinton indictments from Giuliani  “never seen one with more evidence”  comments the same day for icing on the cake.

    Breitbart quoted Eric Prince  “including the fact that Hillary went to this sex island with convicted pedophile Jeffrey Epstein. Bill Clinton went there more than 20 times. Hillary Clinton went there at least six times”    This #pizzagate with allegations the Podestas and Clintons were involved along with incriminating pictures to come out on 4chan Saturday Nov 5th.   Too bad there was a denial of service attack and deletion in real time of any such posts.   I found more information on rumor inflation by reading comments since most commentators and blogs were more circumspect in their departures from facts and named and unnamed sources.    One person commenting on a wikileaks Clinton email suggested that a grandmother’s note that her grandkids would be at a pool party was code for pedophilia.   Again unnamed NYPD sources were third handedly named as confirming that pedophilia code words were in the  Abedin Clinton emails.

    The story was that the FBI Clinton email investigation was limited to search for “classified” documents,  but the Abedin copy of the emails was searchable by the NYPD for other wrong doing.

    I cannot overstress that this is psychological warfare preying on preconceptions,  fears, and hopes.   Just contrast what evil can do compared to innocuous or humorous mistakes.   I have seen several fake news photographs on social media.   a gangsta photo misattributed to Ferguson’s Michael Brown,   fake pictures of the Dakota pipeline protest were posted from 1969 Woodstock and the 1991 Navajo Nation fair.   Google search image has been useful and some social posters feel safer with reposting videos.  Paul Horner says he is making 10,000 a month from Adsense for fake news like his Austin anti Trump protester bus in that Trump picked up in his “unfair” tweet.

    Some workers for change have migrated from disruptive innovation to destructive creationism.

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