Politics, for better or worse, continues to drive conversations on social media. According to a March study by analytics firm NewsWhip, hyper-partisan publishers and their staff writers appear to engage some of the largest media audiences on Facebook.

NewsWhip in February ranked the top 100 reporters for English-language publications on Facebook by engagement and then analyzed that content to discover what underlying trends those reporters have in common.

The study found that an overwhelming majority of the most popular authors for February represent hyper-partisan publications such as the Daily Wire (conservative), Truth Examiner (liberal), Breitbart (conservative), the Washington Press (conservative) or small but similarly politically-charged outlets. Big publishers were strangely underrepresented in the list, with five reporters — representing The Atlantic, the New Yorker, MSNBC and Fox News — comprising the only appearances of a major media outlet in the top 25.

Writers working for conservative publishers by far outnumbered their liberal counterparts: six writers in the top 25 are employed by conservative site the Daily Wire, while two are employed by liberal source the Truth Examiner one writes for The Huffington Post.

The Top Reporters on Facebook: February 2018
Top reporters on Facebook for February 2018 (total likes, shares, reactions and comments from reports’ web content).

View larger image of the top 25 reporters.

One top-ten author writes for UK-based soft news and viral video publisher LADbible, and writers working for Indian viral publisher RCVJ Media appeared twice in the top 25. One author from a fake news site — Your Newswire —appeared on the list. Only one writer in the top ten represented an “established” news source: Terri Peters, a contributor to “The Today Show.” Ryan Shattuck, writer for satirical site The Onion, took the number-one spot.

Given the partisan nature of many of the most popular authors on Facebook, the NewsWhip study suggests that content that polarizes or outright misinforms readers continues to engage and drive an enormous amount of the conversations happening on the social site. Arguably, the study couldn’t come at a worse time for Facebook, as the findings arrive after the platform’s well-publicized recent attempts to curtail politically divisive content in exchange for more meaningful engagements.

“Contrary to what Facebook has announced, a few of the top authors have also seen their engagements come from stories that might seem a bit like clickbait,” a NewsWhip report on the study’s findings concluded.

The study also underscored the idea that readers seem to connect less with news outlets than with authors who have large, dedicated followings. This maps with findings in Edelman’s latest Trust Barometer report, which found that trust in media is currently in a free fall, ranking as the least trusted institution for the first time. That report, which cites the lack of confidence in media stemming from a collapse of trust in social media platforms, also found that, paradoxically, trust in journalism itself is actually on the rise.

Reporting on the study’s findings, NewsWhip concluded that “weird news, current events, and politics” with headlines that “tend to be attention-grabbing, full of provocative verbs or short, eye-catching statements” comprised the most common features among top reporters’ stories.

The report’s March release caught a lot of attention on social media, particularly on Twitter, where NewsWhip CEO Paul Quigley eventually responded, stating in a series of tweets that “The larger problem — people opting into tribal bubbles — is bigger than Facebook. Right now, Facebook is the messenger — showing us that we live in a tribal world. It’s fun for media people shooting the messenger … but it won’t solve the problem.”

“To be clear, if Facebook starts blocking the sharing of sites based on the accuracy of every report, it turns into the biggest censor in history, deciding ‘right’ and 'wrong' views for 2 billion people. How does that sound?” Quigley wrote.

A similar Facebook publisher rankings report last year by NewsWhip found that viral, “feel good” media content produced by online publishers is beginning to overshadow hard news stories for yielding the most interactions on Facebook.