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Clickbait, fake news and the power of feeling

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In the Media
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Fake news has dominated post-election headlines, and important questions have been asked: Would Hillary have won had almost a million people not read that Pope Francis had endorsed Trump? (Probably not). Did Facebook take enough action to prevent fake news proliferating on its network? (Definitely not). But few have asked why these articles were so popular in the first place. Why were so many people duped into clicking these stories?

Earlier this month, BuzzFeed News' Craig Silverman analyzed engagement (likes, comments, shares, etc.) across Facebook and identified the most popular real and fake articles across three distinct periods: February to April, May to July and August to Election Day.

With this analysis, Silverman was able to show that the 20 most popular fake posts were "engaged with" (Facebook's term for likes, shares and so on) 8.71 million times in the lead up to the election, compared to just 2.97 million times in February to April. Mainstream news showed the opposite pattern: Starting at 12.4 million, and falling to 7.37 million in the final period -- 1.34 million less than the fake news. The overall number of engagements is fairly steady, too, suggesting that, at least to some extent, Facebook users were sharing fake news instead of real stories.

Last year, a group of researchers from Brazil's Federal University of Minas Gerais and the Qatar Computing Research Institute, analyzed 70,000 articles from four major news organizations (BBC News, Daily Mail, Reutersand The New York Times) to measure the correlation between headline sentiment and popularity. Although results varied from publication to publication, the general finding was that the more extreme the emotion in a headline, the more likely it is to be clicked on.

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