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The “backfire effect” is mostly a myth, a broad look at the research suggests
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March 15, 2019, 9:54 a.m.
Audience & Social

One year in, Facebook’s big algorithm change has spurred an angry, Fox News-dominated — and very engaged! — News Feed

This is not “time well spent.”

It’s been a little over a year since Facebook announced major algorithm changes that would decrease the amount of news in News Feed, instead prioritizing non-publisher content that spurs engagement and provokes comments. Fourteen or so months in, what does the news environment on Facebook look like?

A new report from social media tracking company NewsWhip shows the effects of the turn toward “meaningful interactions”:

  • It has pushed up articles on divisive topics like abortion, religion, and guns;
  • politics rules; and
  • the “angry” reaction (😡) dominates many pages, with “Fox News driving the most angry reactions of anyone, with nearly double that of anyone else.”

Of course, all that isn’t only Facebook’s fault. The content that dominates the platform now might have risen even without an algorithmic boost. But what’s clear is that Mark Zuckerberg’s January 2018 exhortation that users’ activity on Facebook be “time well spent” has not come to pass: Instead, it’s often an angry, reactive place where people go to get worked up and to get scared. Here are the two most-shared Facebook stories of 2019 so far:

Engagement is much higher than it was in 2018.

Engagement — likes, comments, shares, reactions — has risen. For the first few months of this year, it was 50 percent higher than it was in 2018, and about 10 percent higher than it was in 2017 (which, remember, included Trump’s inauguration, large-scale protests, and the chaotic early days of his presidency).

“There is a possibility that Facebook’s friends and family focus, getting people to read what their networks are sharing rather than what pages are promoting, may have contributed to this increase as people shared articles they enjoyed on the network,” NewsWhip says.

FoxNews.com is at the top for all engagement.

FoxNews.com is far and away the top English-language publisher by engagement in 2019.

When you look individually at comments or shares, however, the picture is different. The U.K. viral publisher LADbible has the highest proportion of its engagement happening via comments of the 1,000 publishers NewsWhip looked at.

Meanwhile, Reuters stories get engagement mostly via shares, not comments, likes, or reactions. Some content from Canadian and local news publishers is also being shared similarly.

What gets comments and shares: abortion, missing kids, Momo

The most-commented and most-shared news stories were often scary or divisive.

Note that PolitiFact rates the “New York abortion up to birth” story — which includes 4 of the 15 stories on the list in one form or another — as False. Henry Winkler is in fact not dead, not 77, and not a “Huge Trump Supporter”; Conservative Tears is a fake news site. And we’ve covered Momo before.

It says something about 2019 that the most-shared story of the year so far on all of Facebook — getting nearly twice the shares of No. 2! — is a 121-word story that says one sex offender may be in the Waco, Texas area. (If he is, it doesn’t appear they’ve found him.) No doubt writing the headline as “In Our Area” instead of “In the Waco Area” led to lots of shares from people who thought it was a local-to-them story.

Politics = anger.

“Angry” is the top reaction when it comes to politics content, though not other types of content (“the one exception to this political rule was when animals were involved, particularly animals rescued from owners that mistreated them”). Fox News had the most “angries,” but left-leaning pages and properties clearly aren’t exempt; Daily Kos also drives a large percentage of angry reactions, as do The Washington Post and Axios. (And, by the way, Bernie Sanders is “the politician [who] drives the most angries.”)

If you’re not familiar, MEEAW is a Bangalore-based viral site.

In a farewell note after his departure from Facebook was announced yesterday, chief product officer Chris Cox said that “social media’s history is not yet written, and its effects are not neutral.” These lists would seem to back the idea Facebook’s effects are indeed not neutral.

The full report is available for download here.

POSTED     March 15, 2019, 9:54 a.m.
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