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«When we started publishing more fact-check graphics on Instagram, we saw huge follower growth there»

Josie Hollingsworth, Audience Engagement Editor at PolitiFact (United States)

Social media platforms like Instagram continue to grow at a fast pace, and over the past couple of years the use of visual content has also become increasingly common among the international fact-checking community

Fact-checkers can use visual content on their social media platforms for many different purposes: to quote just a few examples, presenting an article or the results of an investigation, summing up the most relevant information about an otherwise complicated topic, engaging the audience with fun content, or launching a new project.

The role
of consistency

A consistent style contributes to a strong brand identity

As we said before, there is still a lot to do to better understand and quantify the concept of “engagement” in fact-based journalism.

This result is reached, for instance, when creators use the same font or color palette for each piece of  content that they publish, or a similar way of editing pictures.

This strategy, common in digital marketing and used in a variety of sectors, from fashion to food, contributes to the creation of a strong brand identity and gives a sense of visual harmony to social media profiles. Furthermore, users will automatically associate the recurring style with the outlet, and thus immediately recognize the content creator every time that it shows up on their feed.

A clear example of this approach can be found on the Instagram profile managed by FullFact (Figure 1), an independent fact-checking charity based in the United Kingdom and part of the International Fact-Checking Network (IFCN). Here, we can see that the fonts remain the same across all posts, and the use of colors follows a similar pattern.*

Figure 1. Examples of a consistent social media style – Click to enlarge

Other fact-checkers that adopted the same social media strategy are Colombia Check (Colombia), Dubawa (Nigeria), Correctiv (Germany), and Pagella Politica (Italy).

Visual content can of course take many different forms, other than the way that it is presented, passing from simple pictures to more elaborate graphics, charts, collages, and actual artwork.

  *As of January, 2021

Animated graphics
to attract users

Short videos have higher levels of engagement

A popular method to help increase engagement levels is the creation of animated graphics that are posted on social media as short videos.

We can find some examples of these on the Instagram profiles of Newtral (Spain), Agencia Lupa (Brazil), Cotejo (Venezuela), Maldita (Spain), and Factly (India) (Figure 2).

Figure 2. Animated graphics examples 

Animated videos naturally require an extra amount of work and skills in digital design, but they often result in higher levels of engagement and attract users to visit the creator’s profile page and, potentially, its other platforms or websites.

Visual elements turned
into main features

Verdicts can boost engagement

Some fact-checkers have also been using visual content to create unique, personalized graphic elements that have now become an essential feature of their brand identity.

An example of this mechanism is the popular Truth-O-Meter invented by the American fact-checking outlet PolitiFact (Figure 3): with this system, fact-checkers rate any information they verify as true, mostly true, half false, mostly false, false, or “Pants on fire”, and then associate each status with a unique graphic that is used across all social media platforms to present the actual article. We will look more in depth into PolitiFact’s visual content strategy shortly.

Figure 3. Truth-O-Meter by PolitiFact 

Another instance of graphics that have become part of a project’s brand identity are the ‘Pinocchios’ that fact-checkers at the Washington Post associate with each verdict.

No fixed rules

There is no one-size-fits-all leadership strategy

These are just some common themes that can be found when looking at how the fact-checking community uses visual content.

Each outlet can by all means decide to think outside the box and invent new ways to communicate with their audience. Each profile will then have its own unique traits, and develop formats and styles that best fit the characteristics of the content they want to present.

Thanks to its versatility, it’s clear that visual content can be a valuable asset to increase  engagement levels and to reach the largest possible audience. As mentioned, a good example of a comprehensive, 360-degree use of visual content through the lense of engagement is the  American fact-checking project PolitiFact’s Instagram profile.


PolitiFact’s use of visual content on social media platforms

Launched in 2007, PolitiFact used to be owned by the newspaper Tampa Bay Times, but in 2018 its ownership passed to the nonprofit Poynter Institute for Media Studies, which also manages the International Fact Checking Network.

It focuses on the verification of political claims and widespread hoaxes, with 14 national sites that deal with disinformation specific to different American states.

PolitiFact publishes one or more visual posts every day on its Instagram account. Posts can vary from simple pictures to more elaborate graphics (Figure 4) or videos, and they are used to present or introduce different kinds of long-form content: the results of a fact-checking analysis (with the associated Truth-O-Meter graphics we already talked about); self-promotion initiatives; key elements about topics that are often targeted by conspiracy theorists, and so on.
As of January, 2021, the account has 29,8k followers, and has published 346 posts.  PolitiFact is also active on Facebook, Twitter, and TikTok, as well as  Instagram. The social media department is currently managed by one person, although they occasionally hire interns.

To understand more about their strategy we spoke with Josie Hollingsworth, who works at PolitiFact as an Audience Engagement Editor.

First of all, she clarified that the content is adapted according to the different social media platforms: «We post different kinds of content on Facebook and Twitter than we do on Instagram or TikTok», said Hollingsworth. «Facebook and Twitter are used primarily to link posts directly to our fact-checks or stories. On Instagram and TikTok, we focus on covering live events and getting reader responses, as well as debunking visual misinformation».

However, most of the visual content is focused on Instagram: «On Instagram, we have seen a huge follower growth and engagement in our debunking of memes and visual misinformation», such as this one or this one. Hollingsworth also explained that when the same kind of graphics get posted on Facebook and Twitter, they «work fine, but they don’t get the same reach as when I post them on Instagram» (Figure 5).
While visual contents, particularly pictures that debunk popular memes, proved to work extremely well on Instagram in terms of engagement, Hollingsworth said that the other main social media platforms performed better with different kinds of content, such as «videos that are well-produced and timely» for Facebook, or «live-ish events» on Twitter.

Contrary to what might be thought, in Hollingsworth’s experience at PolitiFact  visual content that performs well on social media does not necessarily result in more visits to the main website politifact.com, where all the analysis and fact-checking articles are actually published.

«We don’t get a lot of traffic from visual graphics posted on Facebook or Twitter», she said, adding: «For example, this high-performing Joe Biden tweet (Figure 6) had 11,875 link clicks. Facebook post data doesn’t show exact link clicks, but a bit.ly analysis of an average post will have about 8-15% link conversion rate from the platform. A social media graphic attached to a post generally decreases link clicks on Facebook and Twitter».

Figure 6. Well performing tweet by PolitiFact

However,  coverage of political issues on Instagram during the 2020 presidential campaign and election, sometimes did result in more visits to the website: «We saw significant (but not sustained) readership on politifact.com from Instagram during that period», said Hollingsworth, even though she also clarified that «currently, we have a lot of in-platform readers and viewers on Instagram, not necessarily going to politifact.com».

On the other hand, a wise use of visual content on Instagram helped PolitiFact grow its audience on the platform: «When we started publishing more text/fact-check graphics [the blue and orange colors on the graph] on Instagram in early August, and we saw huge follower growth there. We went from 13,952 Instagram followers on August 1 to 27,661 followers on December 1».

Figure 7. PolitiFact’s Instagram post count by type, July to November, 2020. Blue and orange represent text/fact-check graphics – Click to enlarge

Figure 8. PolitiFact’s Instagram interactions by post type, July to November, 2020. Blue and orange represent text/fact-check graphics – Click to enlarge

Figure 9. PolitiFact’s Instagram follower growth, July to November, 2020 – Click to enlarge

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