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For Congress members, divisive news is a hit on Facebook

A Pew study looks at Facebook posts from members of Congress and finds that posts with links to national news outlets may be reinforcing the political divide.

Congress members on Facebook find the most success with posts that widen the political gap, finds the Pew Research Center.
Claudia Cruz/CNET

For Congress members, widening the political gap appears to lead to success on Facebook.

People on Facebook shared and liked posts from politicians more often if they contained links to national news outlets on the most liberal or most conservative ends of the political spectrum, according to a study by the Pew Research Center. 

"The Facebook audience re-shared those posts 21 percent and 22 percent more often than if the stories came from outlets that fell in the middle of the score's range," the Pew Research Center said in its study.  

The Pew Research Center looked at 447,684 Facebook posts from members of Congress between January 2015 and July 2017. Of those, Pew found 42,219 that linked to stories from national news outlets. Researchers at Pew also set up a range to measure news outlets' political ideologies.  

Pew Research Center

The researchers found that posts with links from "the most liberal or conservative" news outlets got more shares and likes. And any time Congress members tried to close the political gap by posting links and articles from another perspective, engagement for both Democrats and Republicans fell by 17 percent and 18 percent, respectively.

Researchers looked at posts linking to websites like Breitbart and Fox News, which were predominantly shared by Republican members. Articles from sites like Vox and Huffington Post were almost exclusively shared by Democrats. 

Nearly nearly -- 48 percent -- of the "links to national news outlets that members of Congress shared on Facebook were to outlets predominantly linked to by members of just one party," according to the study. And 5 percent of those news links pointed to sources "exclusively" shared by members of one political party.

The study suggests the way politicians use Facebook could actually be widening the political divide, an issue Congress brought up last month during hearings on Capitol Hill about Russian propaganda on social media sites.

"The new analysis finds some evidence that the ways that Facebook audiences interact with congressional posts containing news links may be modestly reinforcing the ideological divide," researchers said.

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