Buzzfeed’s Craig Silverman Explains Why CrowdTangle Isn’t Just for Your Social Media Team

Craig at work. [Photo courtesy Craig Silverman.]

Craig Silverman, Buzzfeed’s media editor, has one of the most interesting beats in journalism these days — tracking the spread of partisan networks and misinformation, as well as uncovering the for-profit industry that has sprung up around “fake news.”

Craig has used CrowdTangle in his day-to-day work for more than two years, first as the founding editor of Buzzfeed Canada, and now currently in his work as media editor. While many audience development editors, data analysts and social media editors use CrowdTangle, we sometimes hear (the misconception) that it’s a tool meant only for those teams. We sat down with Craig to highlight the use cases specific to journalists.

[This Q&A is part of a series of interviews we’re conducting with CrowdTangle users where they describe how they use the tool and offer tips to others. Interviewees are not compensated for their time or participation. This interview has also been slightly edited for clarity and length.]

Q: First things first, when did you start using CrowdTangle?

A: I remember talking to Brandon when it had just launched — that would have been 2012 or 2011. [CEO Brandon Silverman launched CrowdTangle in 2011.] At that time I was working with the Poynter Institute and I remember showing it to people there. I didn’t get an account at that point, but that’s the first time I saw it. And then at BuzzFeed, we’ve had an account for quite a long time — I’ve been using it very actively for two years now.

Q: How did you use it once you did get access at BuzzFeed? What were the initial things you did there?

A: When I first started at BuzzFeed, my job was to launch BuzzFeed Canada. We didn’t have a Canadian editorial operation — I was hired to do that, hire people and lead the team.

Initially, I used CrowdTangle to set up lists for the Facebook Pages of major Canadian media outlets, as well as lots of local Canadian media. I used it to see what was performing well for them early on, to see what was really dominating in Canadian news on Facebook, and then obviously for us to see if there were stories we also needed to cover. It was probably more the traditional use case of watching competitors and seeing what was working well for them and learning from that. And making sure we get alerts if there’s something that’s breaking, or something that has potential to perform really well.

That was the first use case. Then, starting about a year ago, I shifted to focus more on online misinformation — which I had been doing before BuzzFeed, but had taken a year off to help build BF Canada. The first thing I did was take all the Facebook Pages of all the fake news websites I knew of and put those in a list so I could see what performing well for them.

One of the things about fake news sites is that it’s very rare that something goes viral because it’s been placed on their own Facebook Page. Really, what they bank on is other people sharing the stuff. Other people who have big Pages or other people with influential profiles. At that point it really became more important for me to use some of CrowdTangle’s Search features to monitor keywords.

Over time I became really interested in the emergence of what people are calling “hyperpartisan political news” — [for example] Occupy Democrats on the left and Eagle Rising on the right. As I started to try and understand more about that world, I would come across new Pages and I would build lists.

“I’m a huge believer in building your own custom lists.”
Q: Once you built those lists, what did you look for? How do you use them now?

A: I used them as a way to watch my beat — not just what’s overperforming, but on a basic level it can be really convenient to go in and sort by the most recent posts. If you build a list that has 80 Pages in it, you can see what everyone’s been publishing over the last few hours. I also find it really helpful to use the filters to only look at image posts, for example, to see what memes people are posting.

I also use the alerts. I get a daily briefing from those partisan Pages to see what’s performing well, but I will also go in and scan. What stories are they covering? And how are they covering it differently? I use CrowdTangle to get a handle on that.

Lately I’ve been using Intelligence, which is a really great way to look at follower growth of Pages. If you think people have suspiciously strong follower growth, that’s often a good way to see what they’ve been up to. It’s also really helpful to benchmark Pages against each other to get an understanding of the kind of engagement they’re getting and compare. I also download the data and do more analysis that way.

Q: The CrowdTangle Chrome Extension comes up a lot in guides around tracking misinformation and its spread. You were probably one of the first (the first?) to use it in this way. Did you have any sort of “aha” moment there?

A: I wish I had a great anecdote of the extension! I have to say the extension to me is the thing I find the most constant value in. When it comes to investigating misinformation, one of the core things I always want to figure out is: How is this spreading? And why? And who are the people or entities propagating that piece of content?

To be on a URL and hit the extension button and right away see Twitter accounts and Facebook Pages that have shared it, along with the level of engagement, helps me understand how something has spread and why, and who’s been involved in it. The extension is really amazing for that.

I did one story about this network of sites that we called the “celebtricity network.” It was a network of I forget how many sites (a lot) and they were publishing a lot of fake news. Using the CrowdTangle browser extension, I was able to realize their stuff was doing really well. I saw there were some really big, verified Facebook Pages that tended to share their stuff at very high frequency. It helped explain how their stuff was going so viral, and also of course created the possibility that there was some kind of coordination going on.

The extension is such an easy, useful, fast thing. It tells you not just how stuff is going viral, but also gives you a sense of who it appealed to, and who’s sharing it.

Q: Do you have any advice for journalists new to CrowdTangle?

A: One of the things that I did with our team in Canada was as people developed beats and specialty areas, I would hammer into them: Build Lists. Collect Stuff. Do It Over Time.

Obviously there are lots of default lists that people can look at, but from my point of view, and on a competitive level, remember those are accessible to everyone. The way you get the most value is 1) Of course to understand the functionality of the tool and what it can do but 2) You need to augment it with your own customized data and needs.

If you just go in and look at the basic lists, you’re not going to get a lot of original stuff out of it. So for me, encouraging our staff to really think about building their own lists and searches—diving in by topic and by region—and to think of it not as something you do once and look at forever, but keep adding to it and tweaking it.

“If you’re willing to put in that effort — which isn’t huge — you see it pay off….The part nobody wants to do is go in and do that first hour or two of building really big, rich lists related to your beat or your story. But once you put in that initial time investment, and tweak and prune over time, it delivers consistent value.”
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