Honestly, the lengths that Facebook has gone to in an effort to debunk the idea that it’s a key distribution platform for misinformation and conspiracy theories are amazing, as are the pretzel-like logical progressions it’s taken to re-shape its data to reflect the image that it would prefer.
As a quick recap – back in August, Facebook published a new ‘Widely Viewed Content’ report, which is designed to show the types of posts that typically get shown in user feeds.
The idea was to counter this Twitter account, created by New York Times journalist Kevin Roose, which shows the most shared link posts on Facebook every day, based on data from CrowdTangle, Facebook’s own analytics platform.
The top-performing link posts by U.S. Facebook pages in the last 24 hours are from:
3. Dan Bongino
4. Ben Shapiro
5. Viola Davis
7. Occupy Democrats
10. Ben Shapiro
— Facebook's Top 10 (@FacebooksTop10) November 9, 2021
The daily Top 10 listing is regularly dominated by right-wing media outlets, many of which are known for pushing questionable theories.
Of course, Facebook wasn’t happy with the characterization this presented, so it sought to provide more accurate data on what actually gets viewed on its platform via its own report, which includes a range of provisos and qualifiers in order to come up with another list of the most viewed content every quarter.
Which, in itself, is important to note. Links that get viewed over a quarter will be very different to what gains traction every day, as timely news posts are less likely to see comparative, ongoing engagement over a three-month period. That’s just one of many additional considerations built into the report – yet even with this more edited, curated data set, Facebook actually scrapped an initial version of its Most Viewed Content report for Q1 2021 because it was concerned that it would reflect badly on the platform.
So, not a great start for its counter report – but nevertheless, Facebook is pushing on anyway, with the publication of a new Most Viewed Content report today covering Q3, which, again, highlights various concerns and issues with how the platform amplifies content.
Again, Facebook is keen to point out that link posts and posts from Pages are only a very minor part of the broader Facebook experience, which could suggest that they have less impact than people might expect.
As you can see here, Facebook’s data shows that even links from the most viewed domains see very little presence in the regular users’ News Feed, so the links highlighted in the daily Top 10 list can’t be driving significant response. Right?
A lot depends on how you view it – Facebook has 261 million active users in the US and Canada, so even a small percentage of these users seeing such content is actually a significant amount in raw exposure numbers. But taking Facebook at its premise, that these links and domains actually don’t gain as much traction as the listing might show – so what links did gain traction on The Social Network in Q3?
Much like the Q2 report, the top 10 links on Facebook are a mixed bag of spam, vague news links and content amplified by Facebook’s own COVID resource center.
- The first is a link to a speaking agency of former Green Bay Packers players, which previous investigations have tagged as likely spam
- The second is a CBD seller
- The third is a link to a radio station
- A trade show in London
- A recipe website
- The ABC news website (though no specific URL)
- 3 Minute DIY YouTube channel
- A video mapping the neurons in a human brain
- A UNICEF post (likely amplified by Facebook’s COVID center)
- 3 Minute DIY YouTube channel (again)
So, as you can see, it’s not all right-wing conspiracies and misinformation. It’s junk, mostly, mostly what people see on Facebook is junk and spam – which is also reflected in ‘widely viewed posts’ section of the report.
Harmless, interactive posts that give Facebook users a chance to participate, and poke their friends to respond. It’s also worth noting that almost all of the ‘Most Widely Viewed’ posts listed in the report were posted four months or more back, which has given them more time to gain traction and engagement.
So nothing to see here, right? Facebook’s not the evil machine that the haters want to make out, it’s actually more a quagmire of time-wasting nothingness than a bullhorn for divisive content.
Well, not exactly.
As noted, the fact that this report takes in a quarter of data, as opposed to using daily engagement totals does significantly re-shape the content presented, because day-to-day news posts will only gain significant traction on that day, and can still have a big impact. Facebook would counter this by pointing to the fact that the link posts from the most viewed domains see so little reach that this wouldn’t be a major impact anyway, but still, there is a question around how that skews the data, and what impact, and reach, news posts have each day.
There are also some concerning notes within Facebook’s listings, like right-wing conspiracy pushing Epoch Times being among the most widely viewed Pages, along with the aforementioned spam links.
And there’s also this, at 20 on the most viewed links list:
So a link that violated Facebook’s rules was viewed 38.5 million times in the quarter, before it was removed.
What was that link? What rule did it violate? We don’t know, because Facebook hasn’t told us, it’s just listed it like this and left it as is. Which seems less than transparent.
For its part, Facebook does note that its research process for the most viewed content, and the subsequent feedback on the results, has already lead to changes in its approach:
“In creating these reports, we learned that our efforts to reduce engagement bait and low quality content needed to be refined to address more of it, which has led to changes in how we identify and reduce it. For example, we’re expanding our engagement bait identifiers, evaluating the impact that comments from friends can have on showing unconnected posts in News Feed, and experimenting with reducing that impact. We’re also exploring new experiments to reduce posts with unrelated links.”
Whether that’s because it’s of benefit to users more broadly, or because it might make the report look better, is hard to say, but Facebook says that it is looking to get rid of at least some of the spam and junk that clutters these lists.
But again, the fact that Facebook has gone to such effort to re-shape the data here – it’s even published a new companion guide to help translate the report’s results, which, in itself, raises questions. Why do you need an accompanying guide to justify the data? It is what it is, right?
Why does Facebook feel so obliged to explain and shape the results at all if it’s not concerned about conclusions people might draw from these insights?
I guess, no matter what Facebook provides, it can be misinterpreted, which is why it’s being so cautious. But really, I don’t think that these overviews provide any significant value, other than highlighting that if you want to succeed on Facebook, you should look to post engagement baiting rubbish, and posts that prompt empty user response, which is not really ‘valuable’ engagement.
Which, incidentally, is what many news outlets now use to their advantage, with the knowledge that taking a more divisive angle on a topic will inspire more Facebook engagement.
Facebook may be able to argue that such posts don’t get as many views as more light-hearted fare like this (and note, Facebook counts a ‘view’ when a post is visible on “at least half of the screen on a phone, computer, or tablet, and was viewed for at least a quarter of a second”), but the results here do underline that the key to News Feed success is sparking engagement, anyway that you can.
You can view Facebook’s Q3 Widely Viewed Content Report here.