My Widely Viewed Content Report has people asking a lot of questions already answered by my Widely Viewed Content Report
Our first order of business today is Facebook’s new “widely viewed content report,” which came out yesterday
and represents, among other things, the most time and effort a trillion-dollar company has ever spent trying to make me look like an idiot.
I have already written so, so many words
about my two-year feud with Facebook over @FacebooksTop10
, a Twitter account I started because I was tired of spamming my Twitter followers with daily updates on the most viral content on Facebook.
I might literally die if I have to tell the whole story again, but the basic gist is:
– The @FacebooksTop10 lists, which capture the sources of the link posts by U.S. pages that get the most reactions, comments and shares, revealed that Dan Bongino, Ben Shapiro and other right-wing commentators were absolutely crushing the competition on Facebook, frequently racking up more engagement on their posts than basically anyone else, including major mainstream news outlets.
– This observation caused extreme discomfort to a few executives at Facebook, mostly civic-minded California liberals who didn’t like thinking of their flagship product as a giant Bongino machine.
– Last year, when it looked like Trump might win re-election (and that Facebook’s right-wing content ecosystem might be implicated in getting him re-elected), those executives decided that discrediting my 30,000-follower alt account was an Urgent Company Priority, and devoted a ton of resources to figuring out how to push back on the narrative that Facebook was a right-wing echo chamber.
– The company eventually landed on a strategy that involved promoting a different metric, known as “reach,” that executives thought would give a more balanced, less embarrassing view of what was happening on its platform than “engagement,” the main metric that is measured by a Facebook-owned data tool called CrowdTangle (and, by extension, by @FacebooksTop10, which uses CrowdTangle as its data source).
– Initially, Facebook’s plan was to put reach data into CrowdTangle so that journalists and researchers could poke around for themselves and see that Facebook was not, in fact, a giant Bongino machine – that, in fact, hyperpartisan political content was a tiny portion of what people actually saw on their feeds. But when they built a prototype, they found issues. One problem: misinformation and conspiracy theories that got a lot of engagement also got a lot of reach. The reach-ranked lists weren’t as Bongino-heavy as the engagement-ranked lists, but they weren’t entirely Bongino-free, either. “Reach leaderboard isn’t a total win from a comms point of view,” CrowdTangle CEO Brandon Silverman wrote in an email to other Facebook executives last fall. (Silverman was subsequently relieved of his duties, and the entire CrowdTangle team was broken up and shuffled into other Facebook divisions, in one of the great shooting-the-messenger feats in recent corporate history.)
– The backup plan, promoted by Facebook CMO Alex Schultz and others, was to start putting out quarterly reports on “widely viewed content.” These reports, which would accompany Facebook’s quarterly community standards enforcement reports, would list the top posts, links and domains of the quarter ranked by reach, rather than engagement. The hope, among some executives, was that these reports would draw attention away from @FacebooksTop10, and successfully convince people that most of what people see on Facebook isn’t right-wing rage-bait, but cute cat videos and pictures of their grandkids. The echo chamber myth would be busted! The journalist would be owned! Reason would prevail!
That is…not exactly how it went down. Almost immediately after the report landed yesterday, people began noticing how strange it was.
Ethan Zuckerman pointed out
that the report raised more questions than it answered. In particular, it revealed that some of the most-viewed content on Facebook was literal spam – a link to a Green Bay Packers alumni booking site, for example, was the #1 most-viewed link on the platform in Q2, with more than 87 million views. (Other top links came from similarly obscure domains like Pure Hemp Shop, MyIncredibleRecipies.com and ReppnforChrist.)
wrote that “instead of presenting Facebook as a hotbed of right-leaning politics, the company’s inaugural report presents a far weirder, messier, and spammier picture: the news feed as a junk-mail folder.”
Charlie Warzel also characterized the report
as “very weird,” and said that its seemingly arbitrary methods of slicing the data “might also be representative of how internally disorganized the platform is.”
And Brian Boland, Facebook’s former VP of partnerships strategy (who left the company last year over his concerns about transparency) wrote that after reading the report
, he “came away believing that this entire effort is a PR stunt.”
I have a lot of thoughts on the report itself, which I might end up exploring at column length. For starters: I’m genuinely glad that Facebook has put more data into the world that might help outsiders better understand its information ecosystem, no matter the motive behind it. I’m already hearing from researchers who are digging interesting nuggets out of the report, and expect that future versions will unearth even more useful information.
But I keep coming back to the origin of the report as the primary explanation for its strangeness. This report didn’t emerge from an organic transparency process, or a data science team deciding that it had interesting information that the public needed to see and making it available in a coherent, user-friendly format. It emerged from a handful of Facebook executives getting extremely mad about a Twitter account, and tasking their teams with figuring out a more flattering way to slice the data.
If the report seems weird, in other words, it’s because it is
weird. Trillion-dollar companies don’t usually care this much about single-purpose Twitter accounts. They don’t usually undermine their own data tools
, just because those tools allow journalists and researchers to spot problems with their platform. And they definitely don’t usually assign teams of highly-paid engineers and data scientists to spend months producing transparency reports of dubious value, just to throw shade at a journalist’s side project.
Shannon McGregor, one of the smartest academics studying social media’s effects on politics, summarized my general feelings on all of this: