What news should people see when they come to Facebook?
In the old days, your answer might have been “whatever they want to see,” or even “who cares?” But as Facebook’s dominance grew, and it became one of the most important arbiters of attention in the world, the question grew more pressing. If a country where the median voter leans to the political left has a News Feed occupied by links from the far right, that could cause concern. If right-wing and even openly fascist politicians began to take over countries around the world, that kind of disconnect between an electorate and one of their primary news sources might come under even stricter scrutiny.
A nice thing about Facebook is that the company makes a tool that lets you see what links are popular there in real time. Or rather, it bought one, in November 2016
. It’s called CrowdTangle
, and it lets anyone slice and dice popular links on Facebook in a variety of ways. While it started as a tool for activists to manage their activity on social platforms, founders Brandon Silverman and Matt Garmur realized that the real money was in helping publishers master Facebook. After Facebook retooled its algorithms to promote fewer stories from publishers
, CrowdTangle became more useful as a tool for academics and journalists to understand the pulse of Facebook. (Publishers still use it, too.)
One of the journalists who took notice of CrowdTangle’s abilities was Kevin Roose, a columnist and podcast host at the New York Times.
(And also my friend, in the interest of full disclosure.) For several years now, Roose has done a bit on Twitter where he uses CrowdTangle to assess the day’s most popular stories on Facebook. And what he has found, for the most part, is that the most popular stories come from right-leaning publishers and pages. On this day in June
, the top stories came from Donald Trump, Franklin Graham, Fox News, and Ben Shapiro. Later that month
: Franklin Graham, Fox News, Mark Levin. On Monday
: a sea of Fox News and Ben Shapiro, punctuated by a lone link from the liberal page Occupy Democrats.
Roose’s tweets in this format go — if not viral
, exactly, then at least further around the timeline than your average publisher data set. Let me say: I have retweeted these tweets. I have retweeted them because, in an era where Congress has held multiple hearings
inveighing against “bias” against conservatives on social networks, the data suggested that the opposite has been true all along: that social networks have been a powerful ally to the conservative movement, helping it to reach a much wider audience than it ever would have otherwise.
It is also true that these tweets have been driving people at Facebook absolutely crazy. And the reason is that the way CrowdTangle measures the popularity of partisan links is not the way that Facebook, which owns the tool, thinks that we ought to be measuring popularity.
On Monday, the company decided that it had had enough. In response to Roose’s latest CrowdTangle tweet
— showing a top five of Fox News, Fox News, Occupy Democrats, Ben Shapiro, Ben Shapiro — John Hegeman fired back
Hegeman, who took over the News Feed in 2018
after Adam Mosseri left to run Instagram, showed up on the timeline with a six-part response culminating in a (beautifully designed) graphic. The graphic looks at the popularity of Facebook posts in two ways.
The first is by what social media heads call “engagement,” or interactions — likes, comments, shares. This is what CrowdTangle measures, and Roose is representing in his tweets. Note that CrowdTangle measures only interactions on posts from publisher pages — if someone shares a New York Times link to their own page, it doesn’t get counted.
The second is by what we call “reach” — the number of people who scrolled by the link in their News Feed, regardless of whether they clicked it or engaged with it in any way.
It turns out if you do this, you see that Americans have been seeing much more mainstream news in the News Feed than the CrowdTangle data would suggest. For example, on July 5th, when the top CrowdTangle links came from Franklin Graham, Ben Shapiro, and Breitbart, the links with the most reach came from the Los Angeles Times
, MSNBC, and something called Ranker.com
(“the weirdest small towns in the United States”). ABC News, the New York Daily News
, and People
also made strong showings.
“While some link posts get a lot of interactions, likes or comments, this content is a tiny % of what most people see on FB,” Hegeman tweeted
. “News from these pages don’t represent the most viewed news stories on FB, either.”
Ultimately, Hegeman said
, reach data better reflects how Facebook builds its algorithms (solidly in the mainstream) while engagement data better reflects user behavior (frothing-at-the-mouth partisan). In this view, Facebook is providing most people with a News Feed where the views track roughly with what you could expect from a typical newspaper, but if your
News Feed full of reactionary outrage bait, hey — that’s on you.
I’m told that Facebook decided to spin up some graphics after Roose inquired on Twitter about how to build a bot to tweet out the CrowdTangle stats every day. Advertisers and policy makers had asked Facebook about the Roose tweets, sources familiar with the subject told me, and they had become of increasing concern to Hegeman, Facebook app lead Fidji Simo, and other employees who work on the News Feed. They worried the CrowdTangle data painted an inaccurate picture of what most people see in the News Feed, and some fumed that Roose only seemed to tweet on days when right-wing pages were atop the leaderboard.
“I started tweeting these lists a few years ago because most people don’t have CrowdTangle access, and it’s a useful way to track what’s happening on the world’s biggest media platform,” Roose told me on Tuesday. “Facebook is welcome to post its own lists (Really! I don’t want to keep doing this!) or share other kinds of data it thinks better reflects what’s popular on Facebook.”
Hegeman said that the company is exploring ways of making reach data public
for the first time. The main reason it has not been public to date, I’m told, is that it could raise privacy concerns — you don’t want CrowdTangle making public how many people saw your birthday fundraiser post, probably. At the same time, if Facebook can share which big publishers are getting the most interactions, it can probably also share which are getting the most reach, and if it limits its list to the top 1,000 or so publishers on the site I imagine it can avoid most privacy issues.
Ultimately, in exasperating Facebook into sharing more data, Roose has done us all a service. It is not just journalists who will benefit from better understanding the reach of the biggest Facebook posts — scan Hegeman’s mentions and you’ll see a host of academics also salivating at the prospect. There will never be a single answer to the question of what people should see when they open Facebook. But given the power of the platform, it seems more than fair to ask what they are seeing.