Facebook’s content report fails to deliver on the transparency it promises

There is so much to say about Facebook’s new “Widely Viewed Content Report” — not much of it good. I was hopeful that the company would take a step to provide more meaningful transparency to the public but that isn’t what is happening here. There is some new data being released and that’s the good thing. The problem is that the data released is generally useless.

Let me break down my initial thoughts starting with the limitations of the report.

Released Quarterly — Unlike data Facebook provides via CrowdTangle this report will be released only once a quarter containing data from the prior quarter. If we look at this first release that data is coming out six weeks after the end of that quarter.

Summarized data — Being quarterly the report will summarize the key metrics over the course of 3 months. This is likely to cause more persistent content to rise to the top of the list rather than things that may spike at any given time.

Aggregated links — As Ethan Zuckerman points out in this article most of the links we are provided are from large internet services that host a broad array of content. So saying that YouTube is the top link on FB doesn’t really help you understand what type of content from YouTube is on Facebook. Not useful at all.

US Only — For a service that has the vast majority of its users outside of the US releasing a report focused on the US only is highly problematic. While the bottom of the press release says that they will add more countries in the future we really need to know where and when. At this time there is no additional visibility being brought to the rest of the world.

Significant subset of data — Since there is so much content on Facebook the top 20 (or even 100) of a list like this only produces a tiny sliver of a very specifically defined set of content. With the scale of Facebook there is a ton more content that will reach people and impact them that will never see this report. In fact, so much of what is shown in the posts here is meme content that may get significant reach but likely doesn’t have much impact.

Not searchable — Since the report is just a report you can’t search the data. While this is an obvious statement it speaks to one of the biggest limitations of a curated report like this.

Another issue is the focus on percentages for many of these data points. A percentage may sound small but applied to billion of users and billions and billions of pieces of content small percentages can represent absolutely huge numbers.

Facebook includes the “Suggested For You” section in this report which is a good thing. But it intermingles that with the content that you would normally see in your News Feed. A better approach would be to share the Suggested For You content separately since that could very well change the results of the rest of the content. At this point, I don’t know how much of the content came from that section.

It does highlight another important point — that not only do we need transparency on what is actually showing up in the feeds but we should also see what the recommendation engines are showing more broadly. What pages and groups are being recommended to people?

I have read speculation that this report is a response to the Top 10 List published by Kevin Roose. Based on the structure of the report and what is written in the press release I find that very plausible.

And this is where one major issue comes in for me — Kevin Roose’s Top 10 List is derived from a searchable database provided by Facebook’s CrowdTangle. Journalists and researchers can look at this data and pull together interesting views (and find harmful things as well). That open data set is what is important. The new content report isn’t any of that.

In fact, the press release references CrowdTangle as a complement to this report. I found that striking since CrowdTangle enables other people to learn from the data and make their own reports while this doesn’t enable any additional external insight.

Except maybe Ethan Zuckerman’s article which I found interesting specifically his breakdown of what’s actually in the report is interesting to say the least.

After reading through the press release and the report itself I came away believing that this entire effort is a PR stunt — similar to their earlier press release which I will get to in the future.

There have already been a number of questions raised about the report and I expect some more over the next couple of days as people dig in more. Either way we should push harder for transparency from Facebook and the other digital platforms.

As I have said elsewhere, Facebook could commit to making this public data available publicly in a searchable tool like CrowdTangle. Without those commitments and no demonstrated effort to be more transparent the solution likely needs to be a regulatory or legislative one. If that is what is needed we should move in that direction and do so quickly.


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