Protocol | Policy

Facebook is sharing data to prove it’s not a political hellhole

The company published a report on the most-viewed content on the site, which executives say "most accurately" represents what people see on Facebook.

Facebook is sharing data to prove it’s not a political hellhole

Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg

Image: Facebook

A video of two cats walking, tails intertwined, looking like the best of friends. A resource site for Green Bay Packers alumni. Two different UNICEF links related to COVID-19, and an ecommerce shop called Repp'n for Christ that sells Gospel-themed t-shirts.

These were just a few of the most-viewed links on Facebook last quarter, according to a new dataset of the most widely viewed content on Facebook the company released Wednesday.

This is the first time Facebook is releasing this type of data, which includes the most-viewed domains, links, posts and pages from the second quarter of 2021. Facebook framed the report as an extension of its ongoing transparency efforts. But the information contained in it also serves another purpose: countering the idea that far-right pages and accounts dominate the site in the U.S.

Facebook executives have been frustrated for some time by the way journalists and researchers have interpreted data from its CrowdTangle tool. As The New York Times' Kevin Roose shows through the Facebook's Top 10 Twitter account, posts from conservative personalities like Ben Shapiro and Dan Bongino receive by far the most daily engagement on posts with links in them.

In the face of criticism, Facebook contends that posts with links represent a vanishingly small percentage of content on the site and that reach, not engagement, is a better measure of how widespread content actually is. Executives have strategized internally about how to address this issue, according to reporting by Roose. While Facebook executives stopped short of saying it outright on a call with reporters Wednesday, sharing this data seems to be part of that plan.

"There's a few gaps in the data that's been used to date, and the narrative that's emerged is quite simply wrong," said Guy Rosen, Facebook's vice president of integrity, in response to a question about whether this is Facebook's way of pushing back on the narrative about far-right dominance on the platform. "CrowdTangle is focused on interactions. CrowdTangle only has a limited set of a certain Pages and Groups. We are creating a report that provides a broad view."

According to the report, some 87% of content on News Feed doesn't include a link, meaning it wouldn't be represented in the Facebook top 10 list. Even the most-viewed posts that Facebook is now sharing also only accounted for .1% of all posts viewed in people's News Feeds in the U.S. last quarter. That's because, Facebook wrote, "most of what people see on Facebook is personalized for them specifically," and wouldn't likely be viewed by many other users.

And it's true, these datasets tell a much different story than the one that comes through looking at engagement data. Instead of links from Newsmax and Fox News, the top 20 list of most-viewed links includes mostly benign and at-times obscure links — a YouTube channel on building outdoor aquariums and a CBD shop among them.

Far from barn-burners, the most-viewed posts Facebook shared from last quarter are similarly anodyne. The most viewed of all was a word-scramble that predicts: "The first three words u see are your reality." Another top-viewed post asks: "Please Settle This Debate Does Sugar Go In Spaghetti." Only two of the top 20 posts could be considered remotely political: One from Joe Biden boasts, "Only 100 days in — and America is getting back on track." The other asks whether Facebook users are "ditching the mask" based on CDC guidance.

While Shapiro and Bongino regularly top the U.S. list of pages sharing posts with links on Facebook, they're nowhere to be found in Facebook's own list of most-viewed pages in the U.S. last quarter. That list includes instead pages like Kitchen Fun With My 3 Sons, The Dodo and LADBible. It also includes pages for UNICEF and the World Health Organization, which Facebook has been promoting to counter COVID-19 misinformation.

These are the posts and pages that Facebook executives would prefer the public and the media pay attention to. But it's worth wondering why Facebook believes views — scrolling past a post in your News Feed — are as relevant as likes, comments and shares, which are all indicators of how actively people engage with a given bit of information.

On the press call Wednesday, Facebook director of product management Anna Stepanov said the report was "not so much about the value of the view or whether we value engagement or how we value engagement."

"But it is a way to most accurately, in a sense, represent the actual experiences people have," Stepanov said. "It is what people are seeing as they engage with and view News Feed and the app."

While the new dataset of most-viewed content may shed light on a different side of Facebook, it doesn't negate the fact that the other side — the side the engagement data reveals — exists too. After all, as Facebook's own data in this report shows, even the most-viewed content represents only a tiny slice of all content on Facebook. Neither engagement nor views alone tell the whole story.

Facebook said on Wednesday that it is also making progress on fighting hate speech and other banned forms of content on the platform. According to its latest content enforcement report, Facebook now removes 15 times as much hate speech content as it did when it first began reporting on hate speech in 2018. The prevalence of hate speech on the platform — that is, what proportion of all views on Facebook include hate speech — has declined three quarters in a row.

Facebook said that this report is the first in a series and that it will continue reporting on most-viewed content quarterly in the future.

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