Research Article: The reach of commercially motivated junk news on Facebook

Date Published: August 1, 2019

Publisher: Public Library of Science

Author(s): Peter Burger, Soeradj Kanhai, Alexander Pleijter, Suzan Verberne, Sabrina Gaito.


Commercially motivated junk news–i.e. money-driven, highly shareable clickbait with low journalistic production standards–constitutes a vast and largely unexplored news media ecosystem. Using publicly available Facebook data, we compared the reach of junk news on Facebook pages in the Netherlands to the reach of Dutch mainstream news on Facebook. During the period 2013–2017 the total number of user interactions with junk news significantly exceeded that with mainstream news. Over 5 Million of the 10 Million Dutch Facebook users have interacted with a junk news post at least once. Junk news Facebook pages also had a significantly stronger increase in the number of user interactions over time than mainstream news. Since the beginning of 2016 the average number of user interactions per junk news post has consistently exceeded the average number of user interactions per mainstream news post.

Partial Text

Social media and Facebook in particular have become a major gateway to news. Large numbers of people access news through social media, as shown by survey data from the Reuters Digital News Report [1]. In the US, 45% of respondents used social media for news consumption on a weekly basis, with Facebook being the leading source. Unfortunately, not all news spread by social media consists of high-quality, well-edited content. An important factor in the quality of Facebook’s news feed is the widely discussed presence of ‘fake news’ and clickbait on the platform. Over the last years there has been an alleged rise in low-quality, and even completely fabricated news on social media [2].

We compiled two seed lists of sites that we included in our sample: one of junk news sites and one of mainstream news sites.

Quantitative research has mostly overlooked the phenomenon of money-driven junk news, focusing on junk news and fake news characterized by political content and ideological motivation. Whereas the audience for political fake news is relatively small, consisting of politically polarized, heavy media users [23,24], commercial junk news appears to reach the broad audience it aims for. We have shown that commercial junk news receives significantly more user interactions (reactions, comments and shares) than mainstream news on Facebook. Hiding in plain sight, this category does not strive for brand recognition or loyalty. We have demonstrated that the reach of this kind of news warrants academic attention.

We studied the reach of commercial junk news on Facebook, by analysing 117 thousand posts published by 63 junk news pages and 20 mainstream news pages in the Netherlands.