Dan Bongino is, in many ways, the perfect conservative strongman. Muscular and imposing, his mere existence as a voice on the right scores culture war points against the perceived droves of left-wing soyboys. His profiles boast that he is a New York Times bestselling author and former Secret Service agent, a former proximity to the presidency which affords him an air of credibility when talking politics.
He is also a rampant purveyor of misinformation. His bestselling book, Spygate: The Attempted Sabotage of Donald Trump proliferates the disproven conspiracy theory that Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton used spies to attempt to sabotage Trump’s 2016 campaign. He cast doubt over the effectiveness of masks at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. His page was a hub of 2020 election conspiracy theories. As recently as February 10, Bongino posted on his Facebook page claiming that Democrats used doctored footage in Trump’s impeachment trial, a claim which was quickly disproved.
Despite, or more likely because of all these things, Bongino is one of the most popular figures on Facebook. His page has over 2 million likes and over 3.4 million followers, and its posts, which link to his live show and website, consistently rank among the top-performing links on the site. But Bongino is not the only conservative figure posting misinformation and thriving on Facebook.
Kevin Roose, a columnist at the New York Times who has covered Bongino, has been using the Facebook-owned analytics service Crowdtangle to share the top 10 highest-performing links on Facebook since July 22, 2020 on Twitter. Using Roose’s data, the Business of Business tracked the top-performing link since September 28 — the day before the first televised debate between Donald Trump and Joe Biden took place. The data revealed that throughout the election season and as recently as last week, posts from conservative media figures with histories of spreading misinformation have consistently ranked among the best performing links on the site.
In fact, posts from conservative media pages — including figures like Bongino and Ben Shapiro, news outlets such as Fox News and Newsmax, and pages in support of Donald Trump such as USA Patriots for Donald Trump — made up for 68% of the 880 top performing links on Facebook during the recorded period.
Not every single day since September 28 has been tracked; of the last 137 days since our count began, the list of top-performing links was only provided for 88. The race chart below shows which pages had top-performing links on every recorded day, as well as how many posts from that page were in the top 10.
Conservative pages performed well throughout the entire recorded period — most notably on the days of or after major political events took place.
On September 29, the day of the first Presidential debate, nine of the top 10 performing links came from conservative pages including Fox News, Dan Bongino, Ben Shapiro, Donald Trump and USA Patriots for Donald Trump — a trend which continued for the following two debates. On the day of the Vice Presidential Debate, posts from Bongino made up half of the top-performing links on Facebook. By the second Presidential debate, Bongino had eight of the top performing links with the other two belonging to Fox News and CNN.
On election day, posts from Bongino, Trump, Dr. Ben & Candy Carson, and Fox News had seven of the top performing links, with the other three belonging to CNN and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. On November 7 — the day the Associated Press and several other media outlets began calling the election for Joe Biden — Donald Trump was the lone conservative figure with a link in the top 10, with the others belonging to news outlets like CNN, NPR, The New York Times and liberal pundit Rachel Maddow.
However, it only took one day for conservative media to reclaim its spot with the majority of the top-performing posts. By November 9, Donald Trump dominated the top 10 with five posts, with others belonging to Dan Bongino, religious conservative and Trump supporter Franklin Graham, and Newsmax — the only odd one out was a single post from then Vice President-Elect Kamala Harris. Twitter and Facebook's suspensions of Donald Trump's accounts and other conservative accounts on January 8 only added fuel to the fire — just one day later on January 9, Bongino, Shapiro, Fox News, Brietbart and Brigitte Gabriel had seven of the top 10 performing links.
|Facebook Page||Links in the top 10|
|Donald J. Trump||56|
|The New York Times||20|
|USA Patriots for Donald Trump||14|
|Donald Trump for President||12|
|Dios Es Bueno||8|
Though 103 pages had links in the top 10 during the recorded period, a table of the 20 pages with the highest volume of top-performing links on Facebook shows the chokehold conservative media has on the platform. Bongino dominates the list not just among conservative figures but across all of Facebook. Links from Bongino’s page appeared in 84 of the 88 recorded days, with a total count of 197 links. The page with the next-highest volume of links in the top 10 was Fox News with 117, followed by Ben Shapiro with 70. Of the 103 pages with top-performing links, 67 of them only had one or two links appear in a daily top 10.
The majority of the top-performing conservative media links came from pundits like Bongino and Shapiro as well as from politicians like Ted Cruz, with slightly less coming from conservative media outlets and pages in explicit support of Donald Trump. CNN, NPR and The New York Times are the only non-conservative media outlets to be among the top 10 performing pages during the recorded period with 67, 33 and 20 of the top-performing links respectively. Robert Reich was the top-performing Democratic pundit with only 10 top-performing posts during the 88 recorded days.
Ben Shapiro, former editor-at-large of Brietbart and creator of conservative media site The Daily Wire, is well-known across social media for his controversial beliefs, books and show, The Ben Shapiro Show. In the past, Shapiro has made several dubious claims, such as when he falsely argued that over half of the world’s Muslim population was radicalized. Shapiro is one of many creators including Steven Crowder, Dave Rubin and others who make up what was once referred to as the "intellectual dark web," a group of right-wing pundits who challenged liberal and democratic beliefs. Many of these creators including Shapiro himself have disavowed the alt-right movement and white supremacist movements, yet studies show their content is often a direct pipeline to online alt-right communities. Conservative media outlet Newsmax also recently received warning that it could face a defamation lawsuit from Dominion Voting Systems for false claims that the company helped rig the election against Donald Trump.
Facebook has made repeated attempts to curb misinformation on the platform, from implementing machine learning to identify false stories to investigating the accuracy of viral stories like the Hunter Biden laptop scandal itself, but to little avail. Misinformation and extreme content is as prevalent on the platform under the new Biden administration as it was during election season last year, and Facebook is only now beginning to restrict the presence of political content in users' newsfeeds overall.
On Wednesday, Facebook announced that it would remove all news content from the platform in Australia in response to a proposed law which would require the company to pay publishers for every article posted on Facebook. In it, Facebook stated that the company's business gain is minimal, and that news makes up less than 4% of what appears in users' news feeds. However, Facebook did not provide a definition of what it considers to be "news" content. Posts from Bongino, Shapiro and others may not be considered strictly "news" by Facebook, but they often dress themselves up as such, looking nearly indistinguishable visually from average news articles. To their followers, Bongino's and Shapiro's posts are viewed as more credible than if they came from a mainstream media outlet — A 2020 survey from Pew Research Center found that one in five U.S. adults get their news primarily through social media, and that these adults are typically less informed or more susceptible to misinformation.
Regardless of whether the 4% figure is correct, Facebook pages that post political or news content made up for 17 of the top 20 performing pages during the recorded period. Fox News, which can be considered a news source by most standards, is the second-most popular page on Facebook in terms of link performance. Regardless of whether Facebook has a significant business benefit from news content or not, the prevalence and success of it on the platform is enough to support entire businesses and ecosystems, like Bongino's and other "intellectual dark web" figures.
Bongino himself isn’t sure why he’s so popular on Facebook. “We don’t use bots. We don’t even advertise much on Facebook,” Bongino told Roose in an October interview. “If I told you I spent 10 minutes on analytics over the past year, I’d be lying.”
Much of Bongino’s content plays into the narrative that conservatives are being silenced by politicians and tech platforms. When Twitter banned Donald Trump’s account on January 8, Bongino was wrapped up in the crossfire. His account was suspended for 12 hours, which prompted him to leave the platform entirely in an act of protest. Bongino told Roose that he is preparing to be removed from Facebook for ideological reasons as well, and Facebook's recent decision to curb the amount of political content in newsfeeds may end up denting Bongino's empire. But in the meantime, he and his fellow pundits are thriving and have a near-complete control over which links get the most oxygen on the world’s largest social media network.
About the Data:
Thinknum tracks companies using the information they post online, jobs, social and web traffic, product sales, and app ratings, and creates data sets that measure factors like hiring, revenue, and foot traffic. Data sets may not be fully comprehensive (they only account for what is available on the web), but they can be used to gauge performance factors like staffing and sales.