Outrage As A Business Model: How Ben Shapiro Is Using Facebook To Build An Empire
In May, Ben Shapiro's website The Daily Wire had more Facebook engagement on its articles than The New York Times, CNN, The Washington Post and NBC News combined.
AILSA CHANG, HOST:
Outrage does really well on social media. Posts that make people angry or upset or any other strong emotion get more likes, shares and comments. And a new NPR analysis shows how one conservative website, The Daily Wire, is taking advantage of that more than any other news source. NPR's Miles Parks did that analysis and joins us now.
MILES PARKS, BYLINE: Hey, Ailsa.
CHANG: Hey. So I know that quantifying what's happening on social media is really difficult, but can you just talk about this analysis that you did? Like, what were you able to find?
PARKS: So what we really wanted to find out was which news publishers were doing the best at generating engagement on Facebook. Like you said, this is likes, shares and comments. And it's really the best way we can see - publicly available way that we can see, I should say - what's actually happening on Facebook. So we looked at each month's engagement numbers for a bunch of different news outlets for the last year using data from this company NewsWhip. And what we found was that The Daily Wire, which is this conservative news site founded by podcast host and author Ben Shapiro - the site is dominating Facebook in first place basically every month.
PARKS: In May, for instance, a couple months ago, The Daily Wire generated more Facebook engagement than The New York Times, The Washington Post, CNN and NBC News combined. Those are companies that are, you know, 10, 20, 30 times the size of The Daily Wire.
CHANG: Yeah. Wow, that's fascinating. So can you just talk a little more about what kind of content is on The Daily Wire? Like, do they have their own journalists who report out news stories?
PARKS: Not really - so the site mostly aggregates stories from other news outlets. And these are all stories that either bolster the conservative agenda, or they focus on polarizing topics. There's lots of stories, for instance, on, like, cancel culture and critical race theory. It's not usually false information. It's just extremely biased, which the site admittedly does say on their website. They openly admit to being a biased news source. It's not hidden at all. But I talked to Jaime Settle, who's a social networks researcher at William and Mary, and here's how she explained it.
JAIME SETTLE: They tend to not provide very much context for the information that they are providing. And so if you strip enough context away, any piece of truth can become a piece of misinformation.
PARKS: COVID coverage is a good example. You know, the website does not ever publish an article that says, don't get vaccinated, or, the vaccines will kill you, or something. It's just all stories that glorify either vaccine freedom or talk about potential side effects. So it kind of furthers this narrative that the vaccines are something to be wary about without ever, you know, coming out and saying that.
CHANG: Right. And this content is getting the most engagement on Facebook, you say. So what does the success of this site say about Facebook, do you think?
PARKS: It's another example of polarizing content doing really well on the site. I talked to Deen Freelon, who's a communications expert at the University of North Carolina Asheville. What he said is it's also a testament to Shapiro for being able to appeal to this Republican base without going so far as to break the rules of the social media platforms.
DEEN FREELON: One of the big, you know, things about the blogosphere initially was, oh, anybody can do this. And while that's true in a sense, you know, it's no small feat to do it well. Regardless of whatever you think of Ben Shapiro's ideological leanings, it's hard to deny that he is doing what he's doing well.
PARKS: Every single expert I talked to had a similar response that was kind of like, it's unfortunate that this website is the most engaged with content on Facebook, but you also have to hand it to Shapiro. He's doing something right.
CHANG: (Laughter) Congrats, Shapiro. OK, so what about the news industry? I mean, what does this study tell us about the information that people, especially people with conservative viewpoints, want right now?
PARKS: That's a really good question. Broadly, conservatives over the last 20 years have been growing more and more distrustful of mainstream news sources, which does help a newer site like The Daily Wire. But also, people just have less options when it comes to local news sources. That's something Monica Stevens, who's a social media expert at the University of Buffalo, told me. So we're seeing this shift from people getting information tailored on where they've - tailored to where they live, I should say, towards this situation where people are getting information tailored to their ideology.
MONICA STEVENS: So you're more likely to read the same news as somebody who lives a thousand miles away from you but holds the same perspective than share news and share information with your next-door neighbor.
PARKS: The problem, Stevens says, is that that sort of news consumption can lead to more division and more polarization.
CHANG: That is NPR's Miles Parks.
Thank you, Miles.
PARKS: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.
A previous version of this story mistakenly referenced an out-of-date rating – 34.5/100 – by the company NewsGuard. The company's most recent rating of The Daily Wire is 57/100 and notes that the site "often misstates facts in articles that advance conservative opinion, including in stories about COVID-19."