The New Gatekeepers

New data casts doubt on Facebook’s commitment to quality news

May 7, 2018

Some recent data on the best-performing news brands on Facebook seems to show that high-quality new sources are getting less engagement on Facebook and lower quality sites are getting a lot more. This is the exact opposite of what CEO Mark Zuckerberg promised just last week, when he said the company was working to elevate quality journalism in the news feed, while cutting down on the visibility of fake news and clickbait.

NewsWhip, a social-media metrics company, tracks the “most engaged” sites on the network as measured by likes, comments, reactions, and shares. In its ranking for April, Fox News climbed from third place to first with more than 30 million engagements, while previous leader CNN dropped to second with 24 million. The Daily Mail rose to fourth from seventh and a site called Daily Wire, which specializes in conservative news, climbed to eighth with 14 million engagements.

NewsWhip notes that in March, the main losers in Facebook traffic were sites that tended to focus on viral entertainment, such as LadBible and Unilad, as well as political sites like Daily Wire. At the time, this downturn was seen as evidence that Facebook’s tweaking of the algorithm was having an effect, and reducing the visibility of clickbait and other cheap content. But last month many of those sites recovered.

Does this mean Facebook’s algorithm changes aren’t having the desired effect? Not necessarily. With any ecosystem as gigantic as Facebook’s, changes from one month to the next could be caused by any number of things. Or it could be that enough people said they trusted Fox News and the Daily Mail in Facebook’s surveys, and therefore those sources are getting ranked higher.

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As Facebook’s head of news, Campbell Brown, admitted in a recent interview with CJR, measuring trust is a difficult thing to do when it comes to the news, since plenty of people are more than happy to say they trust sources simply because they align with their existing views. No matter what Facebook does, Brown agreed it would be accused of picking winners and losers—which is exactly what’s happening with the NewsWhip numbers.

This post previously described the Daily Wire as alt-right.

Mathew Ingram is CJR’s chief digital writer. Previously, he was a senior writer with Fortune magazine. He has written about the intersection between media and technology since the earliest days of the commercial internet. His writing has been published in the Washington Post and the Financial Times as well as by Reuters and Bloomberg.