Yesterday, The Markup, a nonprofit investigative platform focused on the ethics of technology and its effects on society, published a piece detailing the popularity of sensationalist, partisan media on Facebook. Drawing on data from its Citizen Browser program, which pays a national group of Facebook users to auto-share their news feed, The Markup produced a list of the Top 20 domains featured in its users’ news feeds from July through September. Meta, Facebook’s parent company, had recently released a similar Top 20, based on the platform’s “most-viewed” domains during the same time—an effort, Corin Faife wrote for The Markup, “to rebut critics who said that its algorithms were boosting extremist and sensational content.”
The Markup’s work—which drew on impressions, rather than Meta’s preferred “most-viewed” metric—would seem to confirm those critics. “We found that outlets like The Daily Wire, BuzzFeed’s viral content arm, Fox News, and Yahoo News jumped in the popularity rankings when we used the impressions metric,” Faife wrote. “Most striking, The Western Journal—which, similarly to The Daily Wire, does little original reporting and instead repackages stories to fit with right-wing narratives—improved its ranking by almost 200 places.” To underscore the disparity between Meta’s preferred metric and its own, The Markup noted that Facebook’s algorithms served one of their citizen browsers 1,065 Newsmax articles—which, using Facebook metrics, would have been counted as one “view.” The Markup’s conclusion? “Facebook isn’t telling you how popular right-wing content is on the platform.”
A spokesperson for Meta told The Markup, “The focus of the Widely Viewed Content Report is to show the content that is seen by the most people on Facebook, not the content that is posted most frequently. That said, we will continue to refine and improve these reports as we engage with academics, civil society groups, and researchers to identify the parts of these reports they find most valuable, which metrics need more context, and how we can best support greater understanding of content distribution on Facebook moving forward.” The Markup published its own methodology here.
On Twitter, Faife noted that The Markup’s reporting took its lead from New York Times tech columnist Kevin Roose, whose use of Meta’s internal CrowdTangle engagement data to make a public daily Top Ten list for the platform’s most-engaged posts has brought greater scrutiny to Facebook’s influence, highlighting its tendency—by some metrics—to promote right-wing content. In July, Roose wrote for the Times that the company responded favorably to his use of CrowdTangle at first, but things changed when he began to post the Top Ten list daily on Twitter. Roose described a drawn-out conflict between Facebook executives about the existence of CrowdTangle; some, such as CrowdTangle co-founder Brandon Silverman and vice president Brian Boland, wanted the platform to commit to transparency, while other executives argued in favor of curation, fearing that journalists like Roose were creating problems for the company. Roose reviewed internal communications and spoke to more than a dozen current and former Facebook employees: “Transparency, they said, ultimately took a back seat to image management,” he wrote.
Obfuscation has been a longstanding problem with Facebook, and both internal and external reviews of the platform’s data are limited. As Will Oremus wrote last year amid Facebook’s initial disgruntlement with reporting on their CrowdTangle metrics, Roose’s posts are necessarily limited, and Facebook’s own reporting “is only a snapshot, one that may present an overly sanitized view of how news and political communication spreads on its platform. It doesn’t tell us how many people are actually clicking on those links to cnn.com et al., as opposed to simply scrolling past them. It doesn’t capture all the political content that people share in the form of memes, text posts, or videos.” Understanding Facebook, including user engagement on the platform, is “incredibly complicated and likely impossible,” tech journalist Charlie Warzel wrote in his Substack newsletter in August. “This isn’t an attempt to let Facebook off the hook. It’s to say that Facebook is far, far too big. What you glean about the platform is heavily dependent on the slice of data you’re looking at.”
The complexity, opacity, and sheer size of Facebook means that reporters at places like The Markup (among many others pushing for transparency) carry a substantial burden in trying to make sense of the platform and its parent company for the rest of us. A host of talented journalists do an impressive job on that beat; still, the stakes remain high. As Tow Center director Emily Bell wrote in 2016, “Social media hasn’t just swallowed journalism, it has swallowed everything. It has swallowed political campaigns, banking systems, personal histories, the leisure industry, retail, even government and security.” Five years later, the same is true—and while we’re arguably closer to wrapping our heads around the problems, they’re still immense, as last month’s release of the Facebook papers illustrates.
For its part, The Markup soldiers on. Along with Faife’s story, the site launched its own Twitter bot—inspired by Roose’s—to report the engagement findings from its Citizen Browser project on a daily basis. “At the end of the day, we can’t take Facebook’s word for what’s happening on Facebook—or in the ‘metaverse,’” the account states in a pinned thread. “We need constant external checks of the company’s claims. And that’s exactly what we’ll be doing.”
More on Facebook and its responses to criticism:
- Self-examined racism: Yesterday, NPR reported that Meta announced plans to investigate whether Facebook and its other platforms treat users differently based on their race. Some Black users have complained that Facebook or Instagram have taken down posts about racism, saying they violate the company’s hate-speech policy. In September, the New York Times reported that Facebook users who had watched a video featuring Black men were asked if they would like to “keep seeing videos of primates.” The company will begin by attempting to track Facebook users’ races.
- What Facebook knew: For the Los Angeles Times, Brian Contreras and Maloy Moore examined Facebook’s awareness of its outsize role in spreading misinformation among Latino and Spanish-speaking users in 2020. “The same sort of themes that were showing up in English were also showing up in Spanish,” Jessica González, an executive at media advocacy group Free Press, recalled. “But in English, they were either getting flagged or taken down altogether, and in Spanish they were being left up; or if they were getting taken down, it was taking days and days to take them down.” When González met with company executives last year, they failed to answer specific questions about content moderation: “a bunch of empty promises and a lack of detail,” González told the Times. But internal documents revealed that Facebook was aware of its problems detecting misinformation shown to Spanish-speakers.
- Tweaking the algorithm, again: Meta also announced yesterday that the platform was experimenting with new features to allow users to customize their own news feeds, The Verge reported. “Facebook has tweaked the way the News Feed presents content numerous times in the past several years and seems to keep rethinking what content should be prioritized and why,” Kim Lyons writes.
Other notable stories:
- Yesterday, a state court in New York entered a prior restraint action against The New York Times at the request of Project Veritas, ordering the Times to cease publishing or disseminating any of Project Veritas‘ “privileged materials,” BuzzFeed News reported last night. The order also prohibits the Times from “further efforts to solicit or acquire” Project Veritas materials. The judge’s order is part of a pending libel suit that Project Veritas brought against the Times last year; a hearing is scheduled for next week. “This is the first prior restraint entered against the New York Times since the Pentagon Papers, and it is an outrageous affront to the First Amendment,” Bruce Brown, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, told Reuters.
- Google has signed a deal to pay for news from French international news agency Agence France-Presse as part of a five-year partnership, Reuters reported. France recently enacted a law that requires tech companies to open conversation with publishers interested in licensing agreements; Google made a similar three-year agreement with 121 French media publications earlier this year. Reuters reports that Google and AFP will also collaborate in some ways, including shared fact-checking resources. Google declined to share the financial terms of the agreement.
- Several journalists working near the Poland-Belarus border reported being verbally abused and handcuffed by Polish authorities on Tuesday. Al Jazeera reported that the journalists—two Polish photojournalists, one Czech—were forced out of their cars after repeatedly identifying themselves as journalists. One of the journalists made a surreptitious recording of the incident, which he provided to Al Jazeera. Poland’s Ministry of Defence claims the journalists didn’t identify themselves as such, but Al Jazeera reports that the reporters can clearly be heard identifying themselves on the recording.
- The judge at Kyle Rittenhouse’s homicide trial banned MSNBC from the courtroom yesterday after hearing from police that a reporter associated with the network was suspected of following the jury bus, the Washington Post reported. The reporter, a freelancer, was pulled over for a traffic violation near the jury bus; a spokesperson for NBC—MSNBC’s sister network—said that the reporter never intended to attempt contact with jurors or take photographs. CNN legal analyst Elliot Williams called the decision to ban the network “hasty” and “a serious issue,” and Fox News anchor Harris Faulkner said the incident “speaks to this bigger issue of chilling free speech,” though she added that MSNBC “wanted to change the narrative” around the Rittenhouse case.
- In the UK, Geordie Grieg has stepped down as editor of the Daily Mail, Britain’s best-selling newspaper, just a few years after taking over the role in 2018. According to Joe Pompeo at Vanity Fair, “no one saw it coming,” including the man himself. “What’s behind the change? Sources agreed that it looks like Rothermere, DMGT’s largest shareholder and a member of the family that has lorded over the Mail for more than a hundred years, is cleaning up shop before taking the company private,” Pompeo writes. Grieg will be replaced by Mail on Sunday editor Ted Verity.
- Maureen Cleave, a British music journalist best known for her reporting on the Beatles, died this week at 87 years old. In her most famous interview with John Lennon, he told her that the Beatles were “more popular than Jesus,” which drew an official condemnation from the Vatican and eventually ended up in The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations.
- Nick Robins-Early, a New York-based reporter, is baking pies for journalists who have been laid off this year. Robins-Early, who was laid off from HuffPost in a wave of media layoffs in March, began baking for friends; now he hopes to provide what he calls “the smallest silver lining” for people in a bad situation. The pies are available for free or for sale; more than a dozen people have “sponsored” someone for a layoff pie. Robins-Early told New York magazine in a Q&A, “I managed to meet all the writing deadlines I had before this kicked off, so I cleared some space for pie.”