Evolve Politics – where recent coverage of Tony Blair’s suggestion voters should consider backing any anti-Brexit candidate was headlined “Ex-Labour PM Tony Blair literally just said people should ‘vote Tory’” – averaged 7,458 Facebook shares for each article it wrote, according to a BuzzFeed News analysis of the most viral news stories on Facebook regarding the first week of the general election. The Canary averaged 7,459, while Another Angry Voice has hit an enormous 19,133 shares for each election-related piece – which has already translated into millions of views, according to the site.
Those are pretty serious numbers. We’d all like share volumes on that level. Talking of which, how does the “mainstream” media compare?
By comparison, the best performance by an established media outlet was by the website of the i newspaper, which has been averaging 2,932 shares a piece – and even that is only narrowly ahead of the Kremlin-backed Russia Today. The BBC, with its attempt to produce carefully balanced political headlines, is averaging 1,115 shares
The i is a good point of reference here – it’s been quite happy to lean into click-friendly lefty headlines. Now, you’d expect that sites which have absolutely no commitment to being unbiased in any sense of the word would be able to do better more easily – but the scale of the difference is huge. The one man band Another Angry Voice is achieving nearly 20 times the number of shares, as compared to the team of people working at the i.
Emoting the headline and embracing the meme
Well, here’s one reason:
Almost all the editors of such sites have a deep understanding of how to phrase headlines that will go viral on Facebook, framing topics in a far more attention-grabbing way than many mainstream outlets do.
Simply put, headlines that work on Facebook carry an inherent emotional charge that cause people to react – share, Like, comment… and that reaction drives further reaction, which drives more spread. It’s the fundamental mechanism of getting content to spread via Facebook – and a quiet read with some head-nodding agreement afterwards just doesn’t cut it.
That’s an area we can, and should, improve on. But the success is almost certainly deeper than that. The left wing sites under discussion here, much like Brietbart in the US, are great at using memes and other graphic images to build affinity on Facebook. Every one of those simple, campaigning graphics that goes viral makes it much, much more likely people will see the next link post that comes done the tubes, because of the way Facebook’s algorithm works. As long as our Facebook pages remain link-pushing machines (and I’m as guilty of this as anyone), we’ll never benefit from the same sorts of organic reach on Facebook on these sites.
It really is time to embrace the meme.
After the deluge, the… opportunity?
However, the Buzzfeed post does point to a coming inflection point for these sites. Their narrative of a swelling grass-roots movement for the Great Bearded Saviour of Islington will likely be challenged by an electoral defeat next month. In other words, as Buzzfeed puts it:
Their reach is large but rarely appeals to the floating voter.
There are signs that the socialist websites have a deep but narrow reach – a small pool of highly committed followers, that are sharing belief affirming materials within their own circles, but are having little impact beyond those networks. They are a classic example of a filter bubble, one the Facebook is almost certainly reinforcing algorithmically.
That’s where the opportunity lies. How can more mainstream news outlets embrace these sorts of tactics, with the same level of focus on what really works on social media, but in a way that reaches a wider audience – particularly the floating voter? If we can crack that, suddenly journalism has real power again.
(As an aside, I’m somewhat uncomfortable with Buzzfeed’s use of “alt-left” to describe these sites, so have studiously avoided it. They look pretty mainstream socialist to me, and thus the comparison with the alt-right of the US doesn’t really stack up. YMMV.)