Facebook has received a lot criticism for its role in helping spread half-truths and falsehoods during the 2016 US presidential election. Back in November, we looked into Facebook’s connection to fake and hyperpartisan news by analyzing referral rates from the social network to 20 known fake and hyperpartisan news sites, and three reputable sites, including CNN,The New York Times, and Huffington Post. We found that while Facebook referrals account for an average of half of the overall traffic to fake news sites, they account for only 20 percent of traffic to reputable sites.

On January 25, the social network announced that it would start making alterations to its Trending Topics feature to help thwart fake news on the platform. To determine whether Facebook’s changes to Trending Topics impacted traffic rates to fake news sites, we analyzed overall traffic rates to fake and hyperpartisan news sites in January and February. Our preliminary conclusion was that the changes worked, as traffic was cut by 48 percent in February.

Overall traffic analysis of February’s top 10 fake news sites

We analyzed the volume of visitors to the top ten articles of nine well known hyperpartisan news sites and one satirical website (The Onion) between January 1 and February 28 to detect each site’s share of traffic and month-over-month changes. We found that overall visits to these ten websites were down 48 percent since January. However, some sites were hurt more than others.

Occupy Democrats was the only site to grow its visitor base between January and February, and had the largest share of traffic in February. American News experienced the smallest traffic loss MoM, down a mere 0.1 percent since January. Abcnews.com.co and Infowars, on the other hand, saw the largest traffic losses MoM, down 85 percent and 60 percent, respectively.

Website % of top ten MoM change
Occupy Democrats 42.5% 1%
Infowars 21% -60%
The Onion 13.5% -59%
Addicting info 6.8% -38%
American News 10.6% -0.1%
Right Wing News 2.3% -22%
Mediamass 1.5% -30%
Eagle Rising 1.4% -36%
Abcnews.com.co 0.2% -85%
70news 0.1% -30%
Overall 100% -48%

Analysis of February’s top 10 fake articles, site by site

To better understand the fluctuations in traffic MoM, we focused our analysis on each site’s leading article. We found that while Occupy Democrats and American News saw substantial MoM increases in visits to their most popular article, all of the sites saw decreases in visits MoM, spanning from 25 percent to a whopping 91 percent decrease since January.

Occupy Democrats’ most popular article took the highest share of traffic, with 39.6 percent of the visits in February. Infowars was knocked to second place, as visits to its most popular article decreased by 74 percent MoM, driving its share of the top ten articles viewed to 22.5 percent. American News claimed third place with 13.4 percent of the traffic, following a 47 percent MoM increase in visits to its most popular article.

Website % of top ten MoM change
Occupy Democrats 39.6% 35%
Infowars 22.5% -74%
American News 13.4% 47%
The Onion 11.6% -73%
Addicting info 6.3% -31%
Mediamass 2.6% -25%
Right Wing News 1.9% -33%
Eagle Rising 1.4% -67%
Abcnews.com.co 0.5% -91%
70news 0.2% -43%

Bottom line: In February, visits to fake and hyperpartisan news sites declined dramatically. We can’t conclusively say whether alterations to Facebook’s Trending Topics directly affected traffic rates to these sites, but there is a distinct correlation between traffic rates in February, and the algorithm change on January 25. This is not likely the last measures Facebook will take to curb the spread of fake news on its platform, so we’ll continue to map fluctuations in fake news traffic against Facebook’s changes throughout the year to get a clearer understanding.