Why no one knows which stories are the most popular on Facebook

Fb will positioned vetted coronavirus information at the top of the scoop Feed

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 that tweets 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.

The Ratio

Today in news that could change public perception of the big tech companies

Trending up: Apple has committed to being 100 percent carbon neutral for its supply chain and products by 2030. The company is already carbon neutral for its global corporate operations, but the new commitment would mean every Apple device sold would have net zero climate impact. (Apple)

Trending sideways: Facebook started labeling posts about the November election, including those from President Trump and Joe Biden. The labels do not contain a fact-check about whether the information is true or false, though. (Donie O’Sullivan and Marshall Cohen / CNN)

Governing

⭐ The House voted to ban federal employees from downloading TikTok on government-issued devices. The policy is part of a package of bipartisan amendments to the National Defense Authorization Act, which the Senate is expected to vote on later this week.

National security concerns about TikTok, owned by Chinese tech giant ByteDance, have picked up steam amid fears that U.S. users’ personal information could fall into the hands of government officials in Beijing. TikTok has said it has never handed over user data to the Chinese government, and that it would not do so if asked. But the assurances have done little to assuage its critics on Capitol Hill and across Washington, who are now pushing for more sweeping action against the platform.

[Rep. Ken Buck] called TikTok a “serious national security threat” during a floor speech Monday before the vote and said the data the company collects from U.S. consumers “could be used in a cyberattack against our republic” if shared with Chinese government officials.

Lawmakers are jockeying to shape the the July 27th antitrust hearing, where the CEOs of Apple, Amazon, Google, and Facebook are set to testify before a House panel. Some want the executives to testify individually rather than as a group. Republicans are also pushing to open the hearing to lawmakers outside the antitrust subcommittee. I’m gonna have to vote no on that one! (Cristiano Lima / Politico)

The House antitrust panel recently interviewed Brad Smith, president and chief legal officer of Microsoft. The discussion centered on Microsoft’s history of antitrust regulation, but Smith also brought up his concerns over how Apple runs its App Store. (Christopher Stern and Nick Wingfield / The Information)

Democrats are worried about a potential Russia-linked effort to interfere in the election by using a Senate panel to advance smears against presidential candidate Joe Biden. The worry is that Russian-linked information is being funneled to those investigating Biden and his son, who was once paid as a board member of a Ukrainian energy company. (David E. Sanger, Nicholas Fandos and Julian E. Barnes / The Information)

US officials accused China of sponsoring criminal hackers who are targeting biotech firms around the world working on coronavirus vaccines. The FBI said the Chinese government was acting like “an organized criminal syndicate.” (Ellen Nakashima and Devlin Barrett / The New York Times)

Coinbase said that it prevented little over 1,100 customers from sending 30.4 bitcoin (currently worth about $278,000) to Twitter hackers last week. But 14 customers still fell prey, and sent around $3,000 worth of bitcoin to hackers before the exchange blacklisted their addresses. (Yogita Khatri / The Block)

Facebook board member Peter Thiel is spending $850,000 on the Senate race of a hard-line anti-immigration candidate in Kansas. Kris Kobach has been linked to Trump’s Muslim ban, and is currently involved in a private crowdfunded effort to build a wall along the southern border. (Russell Brandom / The Verge)

Facebook is slowing its donations to US politicians. The company’s political action committee is on track to spend significantly in 2020 than it did in either 2016 or 2018 — despite tripling revenues since 2016. (Rob Price / Business Insider)

Columbia Journalism Review is doing a series of interviews with organizers of the Facebook ad boycott. This one, with Jessica González, co–chief executive of Free Press, highlights organizers’ dissatisfaction with how the company has responded to calls for different policies surrounding hate speech on the platform. (Columbia Journalism Review)

South Korea’s quarantine app had serious security flaws that could have allowed attackers to see the names and real-time locations of people in quarantine. The app, which helped enforce quarantines, was a cornerstone of the country’s successful strategy to control the virus. (Choe Sang-Hun, Aaron Krolik, Raymond Zhong and Natasha Singer / The New York Times)

Industry

⭐ Since the start of 2020, big tech companies in the US have invested around $17 billion in India. The spike in investments is likely due to India’s growing tensions with China, which have spilled over into the tech sector and created an opening for US companies. Here’s Rishi Iyengar at CNN:

US distrust of Chinese tech continues to grow. President Donald Trump last week claimed credit for thwarting the expansion plans of Chinese tech company Huawei, and his administration has said it is “looking at” banning hugely popular short-form video app TikTok, owned by China’s ByteDance.

It’s a step that would only further align the US with India. The Indian government banned TikTok and dozens of Chinese apps last month, after a border clash between the two countries that left 20 Indian soldiers dead led to calls for a boycott of Chinese products. And though India’s tech relationship with China still runs deep — Chinese smartphones dominate the Indian market, and most of India’s biggest startups have sizable Chinese investment — the recent tensions could strengthen India’s longstanding tech ties with the US.

In Bangladesh, Facebook groups are acting as e-commerce platforms because and Amazon and eBay don’t exist. The low barrier to entry presents a big opportunity for a generation of young Bangladeshis reeling from mass layoffs and fear of rising unemployment. (Nilesh Christopher / Rest of World)

Jeff Bezos added $13 billion to his net worth on Monday due to a 7.9 percent surge in Amazon shares. It’s the largest single-day jump for an individual since the Bloomberg Billionaires Index was created in 2012. (Jack Pitcher / Bloomberg)

Amazon is delaying Prime Day in the US until later this year. The event is typically held in mid-July, but the company is still struggling with skyrocketing demand due to the coronavirus pandemic, as well as ongoing pressure to keep its workers safe. (Jon Porter / The Verge)

Amazon is expanding its robot delivery trials to Georgia and Tennessee. The six-wheel delivery robot, Scout, debuted in January 2019 in Washington. (James Vincent / The Verge)

Pay attention to written Amazon reviews, not just the star ratings. Also, sort by “most recent” to help avoid falling for inauthentic reviews. (Jon Keegan / The Markup)

TikTok plans to add 10,000 jobs in the US over the next three years. The announcement comes as TikTok faces increased scrutiny (and a potential ban) from the White House. (Margaret Harding McGill / Axios)

LinkedIn plans to cut about 960 jobs, or 6 percent of its global workforce, due to the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic. Jobs will be cut primarily across sales and hiring divisions. (Supantha Mukherjee / Reuters)

Instagram is testing out a new personal fundraising feature. The test is launching in the United States, United Kingdom, and Ireland to let users raise money for their own personal causes. It’s available first for Android users, with iPhones to follow. (Ashley Carman / The Verge)

Things to do

Stuff to occupy you online during quarantine

Triangulate your personal opinion on banning TikTok. Alex Stamos made a handy graphic.

Read about another dull quarantine weekend at home, Target, Home Depot, Chipotle, and our niece’s graduation party. “After the kids were in bed, it started to rain, so we all got hammered in the Petersons’ basement, six feet apart. I wish more people understood how much fun you can have while socially distancing.”

Those good tweets

zoomers in march: covid is boomer remover llol
boomers in august: school time 🙂 🙂 🙂

— law dog, esq. (@ggooooddddoogg) July 20, 2020

pronouncing ‘popsicles’ like an ancient Greek name

— the thicc husband & father (@lukeisamazing) July 20, 2020

I often regret doing this photo shoot a few years back pic.twitter.com/BiIJWYNmrQ

— jim murtagh (@jamesmurtagh) July 19, 2020

Daddy said “it’s time to build” pic.twitter.com/mQk4ffbDNQ

— Eade Bengard (@eade_bengard) July 17, 2020

Talk to us

Send us tips, comments, questions, and graphical responses to our tweets: [email protected] and [email protected].

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