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Is “Occupy Democrats” Fake News?

by Alex Mell-Taylor about a month ago in politicians / social media / politics / opinion / controversies / activism
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Anger porn, misinformation & Facebook memes

Created by Alex Mell-Taylor

Occupy Democrats is a very popular brand. Until very recently, its posts routinely found themselves breaking Facebook's Top 10 performing posts every day. Its success has been cited by the likes of The New York Times, framing their piece as the story of "How Immigrant Twin Brothers Are Beating Trump's Team on Facebook."

For the longest time, I did not look too deeply into the content of this brand, perceiving it as generic anger porn. It may not have been the best news, but I filed it away as no worse than the other liberal news aggregators out there, even toting it as a success for how to gain traction in building a political "brand." As I wrote in an article on helping the Left do better on social media:

In the same way that Ben Shapiro is always complaining about how liberals are ruining society, Occupy Democrats' posts spend a lot of time dunking on people like Trump and Fox News. Facebook, as a platform, is set up for this type of engagement, which means if you want to be successful there, serving up a hot dish of outrage porn on a consistent basis is a great way to amass a following.

And while that sentiment isn't necessarily wrong — anger is still a great way to amass a following online— it ignores the content this site is putting out for engagement. When we dive into the specifics of this brand, it sometimes puts out information that is just flat-out false — prioritizing engagement over the truth.

The Breakdown

Occupy Democrats was founded in 2012 by Cornell University graduate Omar Rivero — someone that grew up in an immigrant, working-class background and was impacted heavily by the Occupy Wallstreet Movement and the 2016 election of Donald Trump. He partnered with his brother Rafael, a former real estate and Swarthmore College graduate, to create a style that appeals to a committed audience, particularly the elderly. As that New York Times piece remarked in 2020: "Distilling the news into a single shareable photo that remains on Facebook has quickly caught on, particularly among older users."

These eyeballs have had a tremendous amount of success for the site's growth, allowing them to hire writers to scale their production across Facebook, Twitter, and their own website. This development has turned Occupy Democrats into a business success story, causing them to receive highlights in various publications. The MIT Technology Review, for example, called Occupy Democrats a "legitimate page" in 2021, contrasting them to other, more dangerous platforms.

Yet while Occupy Democrats has substantial reach, its reporting has left much to be desired. It has made many false statements over the years — something you can check on sites like Politifact, which, as recently as April 2022, called it out for falsely attributing a statement to the chairman of Virginia's Republican Party when it was really made by the chairman of a Virginian town's Electoral Board. Occupy Democrats, to its credit, cited a correction a few days later, though the original tweet remains up as of writing this.

The question becomes if these falsities are indicative of a site that pushes misinformation as a rule or one that occasionally misreports facts like any news site or aggregator is wont to do — a question that has been quite controversial over the years.

In 2016, BuzzFeed News (not to be confused with the part of the site that puts out cat gifs) produced an analysis of Facebook pages and how some large ones perpetuate false information. Going through thousands of posts, they manually fact-checked from nine-facebook verified groups spanning from the left-leaning Addicting Info to CNN to the right-wing Freedom Daily. For Occupy Democrats, they specifically found that about a fifth of the posts they analyzed were "false or misleading," with more inaccurate posts leading to higher engagement.

This review was during Occupy Democrats' most blatant period of misinformation. If you scroll through PolitiFact's "Pants on Fire" section (i.e., its worse rating), all of Occupy Democrats' "Pants on Fire" ratings come from the 2014 to 2016 time period.

Moving forward, in 2017, Politifact ranked Occupy Democrats with the "Fake News" tag in its Fake News Almanac (a resource that it no longer appears to be updating). It later removed the site from the almanac after receiving a request for clarification from The Miami New Times. As recounted by the Miami New Times: "the site should not have been included in the almanac because the majority of its posts reviewed by PolitiFact were not designated as fake news" (side note, by that logic, the site would be included in the almanac today as the majority of its reviewed posts for it are now false).

Captured October 18, 2022 4:31 PM

Another ding to its reputation came the following year, in 2018, after a series of organizations cast its veracity in doubt. Then-managing editor at Snopes told The Baily Beast in August that the page's headlines were often "extremely misleading." Wikipedia, a month later, voted to remove Occupy Democrats as a reliable source of information, earning it a series of unfavorable headlines.

Now, to be fair, Wikipedia has high standards when it comes to sources of information. And even with these acceptable "sources," the issue of misinformation is not as straightforward. For example, the New York Times (a source that is deemed reliable) is routinely called out for things such as passive voice and source biases impacting its reporting. On the issue of policing, many NYT journalists rely not only on passive voice framings that obscure responsibility (e.g., "a police-involved shooting") but an overreliance on sources like police spokespersons and politicians without including activists, nonprofits, and victims of police brutality as counterpoints.

However, these biases don't necessarily make Occupy Democrats a good alternative. As we have seen, they often counteract these problems with unreliable hyperbole and misinformation. We have already pointed out several examples of recent misinformation, and there is no indication that it's ramping down anytime soon. In the current era, Occupy Democrats has been labeled a spreader of fake news by actors across the political spectrum, from a paper out of the Wharton Business School to far-leftist YouTubers.

Conclusion

We know from all these indicators that Occupy Democrats is not very reliable, but how unreliable are they from a numbers perspective?

The sad truth is that, at this time, we cannot know. Sites like Snopes and Politifact cannot fact-check the thousands of posts and videos being pushed across this brand's various platforms. They are primarily reactive services, checking the most egregious offenders that show up on their timelines. I have not been able to come across a more recent analysis such as the one BuzzFeed performed in 2016 (though please post one if you know of one), and I do not have the resources to replicate that reporting.

Based on the site's history and continued incentives, we have no indication that it's eased up on this misinformation. Facebook still incentivizes rampant misinformation, and newer platforms such as TikTok (where Occupy Democrats has not yet established a serious presence) can repost their memes with even less fact-checking in place.

In 2017, co-founder Rafael Rivero described this new era of journalism as the "wild west" of reporting. Five years later, that impression has not gone away — if anything, the frontier has expanded, and like in real life, it's hurting many people along the way.

politicianssocial mediapoliticsopinioncontroversiesactivism

About the author

Alex Mell-Taylor

I write long-form pieces on timely themes inside entertainment, pop culture, video games, gender, sexuality, race and politics. My writing currently reaches a growing audience of over 10,000 people every month across various publications.

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