I first caught on to New York Times reporter Kevin Roose’s “Facebooks Top 10” Twitter account when a journalist retweeted it. It was early October, just two days after the first presidential debate — which, if you don’t remember, was a nightmare — and the list showed that conservative media dominated post-debate coverage on Facebook.
Roose created the account using Crowdtangle, a Facebook-owned analytics tool that allows users and journalists to track engagement metrics across social media sites. With it, Roose says he was able to “rank Facebook link posts — that is, posts that include a link to a non-Facebook site — in order of the number of reactions, shares and comments they got.”
The list from that day is a perfect sample of what the Twitter account would look like over the next several months. It included a spattering of conservative outlets and voices: Fox News and figures like Sara Palin sat comfortably high on the list, but heroes to the alt-right like Dan Bongino and Ben Shapiro — who have told their audiences that masks are ineffective at stopping the spread of COVID-19 and that “Arabs like to bomb crap and live in open sewage” — dominated the very top. Sometimes, a centrist or left-leaning outlet like CNN or NPR finds space among them.
I work at a data-driven news site, and here was all this data, so I started gathering it and planning to write a story somewhere down the line. Down the line, as it turned out, things only got worse. The debates continued to be terrible, the election itself was fraught and drawn out, and on January 6, a mob stormed the Capitol. A few weeks after Joe Biden was sworn in, we put the data together and reported a story tracking the most popular posts on Facebook from the first debate all the way to February. What we found was unsurprising: conservative media, and especially pundits like Shapiro and Bongino, were thriving on Facebook.
It turns out the potential Crowdtangle and @FacebooksTop10 had to generate stories like the one we did was a source of internal strife, as Roose chronicled in a column Wednesday. Some executives at Facebook thought the open nature of Crowdtangle showed the company was willing to accept criticism by allowing a vulnerable look behind the curtain. Others thought it could lead to “bad” and “wrong” narratives about the company, and opened them to further criticism. Some publicly responded to Roose’s daily posts, saying that it only showed “engagement” and not “reach,” which shows the total number of people who saw a post on their feed regardless of whether they interacted with it.
According to Roose, those at Facebook who would rather have control over such narratives won the war, meaning Crowdtangle, and all the reporting that was done with it, may soon cease to exist in its current form. It’s an outcome completely antithetical to what we’re told journalism is supposed to accomplish. We’re told that watchdog reporting will make organizations more transparent, not more closed off. That free access to information will help educate and inform the public, not that it will only reach those who already know about it. Even if it wasn’t earth shattering, I believe in the story we published and I believe in the importance of Roose’s project. But it’s hard to argue that the outcome of all this didn’t just make things worse for everyone.
If you agree with pundits like Bongino and Shapiro, you’re probably getting ready to ask why it’s “such a bad thing” that they and others like them are succeeding on Facebook. After all, shouldn’t all viewpoints be allowed to exist in the marketplace of ideas? But if you still somehow believe in a marketplace of ideas, then you must also believe that no one idea should “win.” There is no free-flowing exchange happening on Facebook or anywhere on social media. "The Algorithm" causes users to construct their own realities, and social media companies need to keep them engaged. Showing a user something they haven't given a signal on is a risk, and those kinds of risks are not what got Facebook to reach a trillion-dollar market cap.
Journalists write critically of echo chambers, but we're in one ourselves. Stories like Roose’s are shared and retweeted by an outsized number of journalists, and those retweets are liked by another group of journalists — that’s how I found it, after all. The people in Dan Bongino's comment section will never see them, but we see the little red hearts on our tweets and think we’re reaching them. Roose's article has only 39 comments on the New York Times' website as of the time this article was published. The most recent top post on Facebook according to @FacebooksTop10, which is from a conservative page called “For America,” has 12,000.
In three weeks, I'll be standing on a box outside Grand Central telling you your phone is evil, but you won't look up from it when you walk past me. At least my “reach” will be high.