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July 14, 2021, 10:13 a.m.
LINK: www.nytimes.com  ➚   |   Posted by: Laura Hazard Owen   |   July 14, 2021

Since last year, New York Times tech columnist Kevin Roose has been using Facebook’s data analytics tool, CrowdTangle, for a purpose the company doesn’t like — to show that the posts with the most engagement on Facebook are far more likely to come from right-wing commentators than mainstream news outlets. He tweets the most-engaged posts each day.

Facebook has pushed back, insisting that posts with high engagement on Facebook aren’t what most people actually see. Reach is a more important metric, they insist. But the company doesn’t make reach data public, and meanwhile @FacebooksTop10 tweets on, painting a similar, Ben-Shapiro-and-Fox-News-filled picture every day now that Trump himself is banned from Facebook.

On Wednesday, Roose wrote about the battle inside Facebook “over data transparency, and how much the social network should reveal about its inner workings,” specifically in relation to Roose’s use of the CrowdTangle feature. Some executives argued that Facebook should be as transparent as possible about the content that does well on its platform. Others argued that Facebook should release only “carefully curated” reports:

They argued that journalists and researchers were using CrowdTangle, a kind of turbocharged search engine that allows users to analyze Facebook trends and measure post performance, to dig up information they considered unhelpful — showing, for example, that right-wing commentators like Ben Shapiro and Dan Bongino were getting much more engagement on their Facebook pages than mainstream news outlets.

These executives argued that Facebook should selectively disclose its own data in the form of carefully curated reports, rather than handing outsiders the tools to discover it themselves.

Team Selective Disclosure won, and CrowdTangle and its supporters lost.

Last year, I analyzed the amount of political news in people’s Facebook feeds. “My survey is way too small to settle the debate,” I wrote at the time. “But the list of most-seen publishers in my sample falls somewhere between [the one ‘reach’ list that Facebook has actually released] and one of Roose’s ‘engagement’ lists. It’s topped by mainstream publishers, sure, but it includes partisan outlets too.”

[Read: How much political news do people see on Facebook? I went inside 173 people’s feeds to find out]

You should read the entire piece about this problem that has “vexed some of Facebook’s top executives for months,” but a couple highlights:

— Brian Boland, a Facebook VP who oversaw CrowdTangle and who had argued for transparency about the content that was performing well on Facebook, left the company last year after 11 years there. “One of the main reasons that I left Facebook is that the most senior leadership in the company does not want to invest in understanding the impact of its core products,” Boland told Roose. “And it doesn’t want to make the data available for others to do the hard work and hold them accountable. … People were enthusiastic about the transparency CrowdTangle provided until it became a problem and created press cycles Facebook didn’t like. Then, the tone at the executive level changed.”

— @FacebooksTop10 “drove executives crazy,” to the extent that they considered starting a competing Twitter account — based on reach, rather than engagement — that they believed would be more balanced.

As the election approached last year, Facebook executives held meetings to figure out what to do, according to three people who attended them. They set out to determine whether the information on @FacebooksTop10 was accurate (it was), and discussed starting a competing Twitter account that would post more balanced lists based on Facebook’s internal data.

They never did that, but several executives — including John Hegeman, the head of Facebook’s news feed — were dispatched to argue with me on Twitter. These executives argued that my Top 10 lists were misleading. They said CrowdTangle measured only “engagement,” while the true measure of Facebook popularity would be based on “reach,” or the number of people who actually see a given post. (With the exception of video views, reach data isn’t public, and only Facebook employees have access to it.)

Except, well, there was a problem with the “reach” metric too.

Several executives proposed making reach data public on CrowdTangle, in hopes that reporters would cite that data instead of the engagement data they thought made Facebook look bad.

But Mr. Silverman, CrowdTangle’s chief executive, replied in an email that the CrowdTangle team had already tested a feature to do that and found problems with it. One issue was that false and misleading news stories also rose to the top of those lists.

“Reach leaderboard isn’t a total win from a comms point of view,” Mr. Silverman wrote.

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