For a couple of hours on an otherwise placid Thursday afternoon, Business Insider broke, as they say, the internet. It began with a tweet:
By Monday, the accompanying story—“Foursquare data reveals the most popular fast-food chain in every state—and America has a clear winner”—had more than 6 million “flames,” Business Insider’s public traffic counter, dwarfing every other story on the site’s trending page. If you’ve ever had a job that involved monitoring a website’s traffic, you can imagine the fireworks show that ensued on Business Insider’s Chartbeat on Thursday as the fast-food-map tweet promptly went viral. The post ricocheted across social media, drawing, with few exceptions, a combination of disgust and fury. These were the most popular fast food restaurants in the country? Chick-fil-A is great, but the most popular chain in 38 states? In-N-Out outpacing Whataburger in Texas? Had anyone in Nevada ever seen a White Castle? What even was Raising Cane’s?
Apparently "popular" has more than one definition— Whataburger® (@Whataburger) October 20, 2017
The map is deeply flawed, of course, as anyone who’s ever driven on Highway 101 or been to any of this nation’s burger-bedecked strip malls can attest. The post accompanying the map on Business Insider explained the crackpot methodology: The total number of restaurant check-ins on Foursquare divided by the number of a given chain’s restaurants in the state. Never mind that Foursquare is a highly suspect provenance, given that the once-mighty social network has fallen precipitously from its late-aughts heights and recently pivoted. Never mind that there are only six Popeyes in all of Hawaii and two Nevadan White Castles and one Maine Chick-fil-A, each of those states’ popularity “winner.” Never mind that this disadvantages larger chains like McDonald’s, which has about 1,500 locations in California alone. Dividing visits by number of restaurants is an absurd way to determine popularity; assuming you trust the validity of the Foursquare data in the first place, the map at its very best might be able to sketchily determine foot traffic or profitability, which is what perhaps no one but a mall leasing agent might consider a reasonable definition of “popularity.”
The map is bad, is my point, and obviously bad, and I sincerely wish that we didn’t have to talk about it. But we do. Because maps like this one aren’t merely birdbrained schlock: They are a social media plague, a scourge that can reduce just about any social network to gibbering in-fights in the space of a few virally shared minutes. We’re all susceptible; we’re all defenseless. A dumb internet map with incendiary falsehoods is coming for all of us, and there is just about nothing we can do to stop it.
The formula goes something like this: Map plus declaration of definitive statewide preference equals profit. Profit here means eyeballs or clicks or reshares or, most likely, some combination of all three, especially the last one, because it turns out that there are few sentiments more appealing than Oy, check out the terrible things the cretins in [Bad State] get up to.
Consider some other recent viral highlights. “This Map Shows What People Hate the Most in Each State” (using data from a brand-new dating app that no one outside a handful of stunt pieces seems to have used, and which was obviously trying to drum up interest). There are maps showing states’ Favorite Holiday Movies and Favorite Reality TV Show and Favorite Romantic Comedy (using an arbitrarily arrived at combination of AMC user ratings—what?—and Google Trends data). “This Map Shows the Most Popular Food in Every State” (using Pinterest recipes specifically selected for their range). Even The New York Times has gotten awfully close to its own Map of Dubious Adorations, publishing a 50-state anthology of Thanksgiving classics in 2014, in which the effort to differentiate by state yielded questionable dishes like “grape salad.”
The truth is we’re all very boring, and our preferences aren’t all that different. A couple of years ago, Domino’s pushed its own splashy map: “Every State’s Favorite Pizza Topping.” The entire nation is covered in pepperoni. “We don’t really see a state-by-state or even much of a regional preference in the U.S.,” a Domino’s VP explained to The Huffington Post. To create an interesting map—i.e., a map with enough variance between states that we can all get mad online—publishers have to manipulate the data in ways that are doctored to the point of statistical uselessness. Last year, I wrote about a map of popular Halloween candies that refuses to die; it used shady data from a lesser-known and fraud-ridden review site to come up with a list that somehow marked Toblerone—a definitively niche product in the U.S.—the most popular candy in Arizona.
A lack of academic rigor doesn’t seem to stop many publishers from producing—and, especially reproducing—these maps. Consider how the Business Insider map spread. When Business Insider pulled down its tweet with the viral map a few hours after posting it, it seemed like a minor moral victory for fast food truthers: Twitter users successfully shamed a publisher out of a bad, silly post! But Business Insider confirmed to The Ringer that the deletion had nothing to do with the nonsense data set. “We deleted the tweet because it contained a draft version of the map that was different from the one actually in the post (our Twitter version showed Chick-fil-A in Alaska when the map in the post showed McDonald’s),” explained Ashley Lutz, who edited the post. “We deleted it as not to confuse readers.” The post remained as it was when originally published, and nearly all of its traffic arrived after the link was scrubbed from Twitter. How?
Once the map hit social media, it readily spread without Business Insider’s assistance. The Washington Post picked it up, along with a handful of local news outlets, some of which attempted half-hearted debunkings. Here’s a tweet that even had the courtesy to link back to Business Insider before going viral in its own right:
The bleakest part of this whole charade is that Business Insider seems to be entirely aware of the fact that its map is bullshit. This, after all, was not its first rodeo. Earlier this month, Business Insider used the same shifty Foursquare data to devise an equally dubious map showing “the most popular shopping chain in each state” (Uniqlo, allegedly the most popular retailer in Illinois, has exactly one outpost there). Two years ago, it was “which vice your state craves the most.” In December, Business Insider published a video showing “the top 10 fast food chains that dominate in America,” which pronounced Subway—with 26,887 stores in the United States—the nation’s most popular fast food restaurant. This is about as close to accuracy as any fast food map might come, though that map opted not to include a state-by-state breakdown—lest we see, perhaps, the horrible truth of the United States of Subway.
Or take this familiar post from August 2016: “The most popular fast food chain in every state,” complete with a map generated using—gasp—data from Foursquare “to determine which fast food chain is the most popular in each state.” On the 2016 map, Chick-fil-A dominates just 24 states (compared to the new version’s 38), while McDonald’s, which carried just Alaska and North Dakota on the new map, leads in 16 states. Are we supposed to believe that in the last 14 months, Americans abandoned McDonald’s for Chick-fil-A in droves? Wouldn’t that lead to some kind of greater McDonald’s crisis of the sort that might make just a little bit of news? Were the two maps generated with Foursquare built using different methodologies, and if so, how could both of them have yielded “the most popular fast food chain in every state”? Does Business Insider know that it published the other map? If it did, would anyone there care?
I, for one, have all the shoddy data I need to hazard a guess.