What can deleted Facebook comments tell us about an election?

A lot, if you ask a team of journalists from Der Standard. They put their Facebook Monitor to test earlier this year, with telling results

In an age where votes are easily swayed by social media influence and campaigning takes place on your newsfeed, the admin of a Facebook page can wield a whole lot of power. They can censor dissent, silence critics, paint one side of the story that they want displayed — all with little or no accountability.

How can newsrooms, then, investigate Facebook moderation and censorship issue?

A team of journalists from Austria’s Der Standard — Gerald Gartner, Markus Hametner and Anderas Sator — built a hack at the Süddeutsche Zeitung Editors Lab, held in Munich last year. The event was organised with the support of the Google News Lab.

Their prototype, called Facebook Monitor, makes deleted comments visible. The script routinely scrapes a mandated Facebook page and its comments, along with a timestamp. If, a few minutes later, certain comments are not available anymore, it can be assumed that the admin deleted them, either because they didn’t meet their standards or were considered unfavourable. The tool’s script creates a database of deleted comments. Here, each comment includes a timestamp, information about the user, the content of the comment and the number of likes that it had. ‘The like count tells you how much attention it received before it got deleted,’ says Gartner.

The goal, the team says, is to find patterns that could suggest whether the admins were actively censoring criticism. The script is easily adaptable too; this could be used on politician’s Facebook pages, for other public figures, even for companies who tend to strike off bad reviews.

Der Standard’s team analysed three weeks worth of data shortly after the hackathon, in the lead-up to Austria’s presidential election in April 2017. Facebook Monitor found that in three weeks, 3,400 comments had been deleted from the official Facebook pages of the two leading presidential candidates, Norbert Hofer and Alexander Van der Bellen (who is now the president of Austria). The tool’s findings were chronicled in a widely read article published at the end of November 2016.

According to the article, while the candidates didn’t agree on much, they both said that this election campaign ‘was the dirtiest they have experienced’. They were often insulted on social media. At the same time, netizens would complain that their critical comments were disappearing. Der Standard began to monitor the candidates’ Facebook pages with a certain set of questions — how much contradiction do politicians tolerate on the Internet? Where is the line between insult and constructive criticism? How often are they really attacked below the belt?

Der Standard considered posts that vanished from the candidate Facebook pages from October 27 to November 18, 2016. Of a total 24,700 comments posted in that frame, 3,400 were found missing; 1,800 from Hofer’s 14,700 total comments; and about 1,600 from the 10,000 comments made on Van der Bellen’s page.

Gerald Gartner and Markus Hametner from Der Standard

A disclaimer adds that the script can’t tell whether the comments have been deleted by page admins, Facebook itself or the author, so while the system isn’t 100% accurate, the bulk of information lends a fair glimpse into categories and reasons for deletion.

Some comments deemed by the Standard as constructive or factual criticism were found missing on both sides — but more frequently from Hofer’s page. Only a handful of deleted comments involved threats of violence; these were rarely posted.

In case of Van der Bellen, the most recurring theme for deleted comments was personal insults. He was repeatedly attacked for his old age, in addition to often being called a liar or hypocrite.

Der Standard classifies an argument without the use of a swear word as factual criticism. On Hofer’s page, a majority of deleted comments fell into this category, questioning his statements and policies.

Der Standard contacted more than 50 people who found their comments missing from these pages; more than a dozen said they did not delete the comments themselves.

The team also found that if a critical post had received an unusually high number of likes, it would not be deleted — perhaps because too many people had already interacted with the post.

‘Facebook Monitor can help the newsroom understand the candidate and his or her strategy better,’ says Gartner. ‘The idea is to use it for newsroom research, to identify trends and to be able to compare one candidate’s strategy with another’s. Our analysis piece did really well online. People turned off their AdBlocker to be able to access it — that’s always a huge compliment.’

The team hopes to use the tool for future elections too.