The fake victims of the Facebook algorithm apocalypse

Diamond and Silk. Source: Wikipedia

When the biographies of current day media moguls are written, January 11, 2018 will probably be portrayed as a pivotal point in 21st Century media history, akin to William Randolph Hearst’s statement of “you furnish the pictures. I’ll furnish the war,” a quote often cited to represent the rise of yellow journalism.

That’s because January 11 was the day Adam Mosseri, head of news feed at Facebook, published a blog post titled “Bringing People Closer Together.” This innocuous headline belied the tectonic impact the announcement would have on the digital publishing industry, particularly for those publishers that specialize in news gathering. In its quest for more “meaningful interactions” between friends, Facebook would be downgrading pages within its news feed algorithm.

Publishers easily read between the lines. For nearly a decade, they’d grown used to the firehose of Facebook referral traffic, in some cases launching entire media properties that were designed to profit from the cheap pageviews that the platform was shoveling their way. That firehose had gradually diminished over time, but Mosseri’s announcement signaled a paradigm shift for how the social media giant viewed its role in the digital ecosystem. Baby pictures were in. Updates on the war in Syria were out.

It’s been five months since that announcement, and we’re still assessing the fallout. And to be sure, the fallout is real; we’ve seen several media companies that have since closed up shop in the wake of the changes. Little Things, a site that specialized in feel-good stories and videos, announced its closure in February, citing a 75 percent drop in the publication’s organic reach. Render Media, which owned publishers that produced cooking and political content, shut down a month later.

But while Facebook’s algorithm change has had significant downstream effects, I’d advise circumspection and caution when assessing any one publisher’s claims about the impact the tweaks have had on that publisher’s business. The data right now is pretty noisy, with some publishers actually benefiting from the shift, and I think we should all be wary of claims from media entities that might want to either score political points or gain leverage against Facebook.

Case in point: Diamond and Silk. The female duo have become a two-person media powerhouse, with their pro-Trump videos generating tens of millions of views on Facebook. They’ve made some explosive claims that the company is censoring their content — claims that have thrown fuel on the fire of long held conspiracy theories that Facebook unfairly targets conservative publishers.

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While questioning Mark Zuckerberg in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, GOP Rep. Billy Long pulled out a large poster image of Diamond and Silk, and the two were interviewed by the House Judiciary Committee soon afterward about the alleged censorship. At one point Ted Cruz claimed that Facebook had “blocked Trump supporters Diamond and Silk’s page, with 1.2 million Facebook followers.”

There was only one problem: as with many statements Cruz has made over the years, this one was flatly untrue. ThinkProgress compiled data from CrowdTangle showing that interactions on Diamond and Silk’s Facebook page had remained mostly unchanged over a period of months. “Diamond and Silk’s Facebook page actually received more total interactions in March 2018 (1,088,000), when they were supposedly being censored, than in March 2017 (1,060,000),” wrote Judd Legum. “Diamond and Silk received more interactions in January 2018 (1,328,000), when they began complaining about censorship, than in any month the previous year.”

Trying to assess the actual winners and losers of the Facebook algorithm change is fairly complicated, with some publishers experiencing wide swings in engagement from month to month. In some cases, publishers have seen no impact at all.

Data from NewsWhip, for instance, has found no real shift in what kind of videos thrive on Facebook. Despite claims from executives that the platform is pivoting to more “high quality” content, the same kind of baby and puppy videos that have always done well on Facebook are still thriving. NewsWhip wrote that “only a couple [of the top videos] came from what you might call traditional mainstream publishers, with ABC News and Fox News both featuring once in the 100 most engaged Facebook videos.”

It’s not all bad news for mainstream publishers. A second report from NewsWhip found “engagement boosts for mainstream news outlets such as CNN and NBC, and declines for smaller, politically-focussed sites and entertainment publishers.” If you’re a legacy news brand that doesn’t succumb to hyper-politicized headlines, then you might actually be benefiting from this algorithm change.

Viral media sites, the kind that repackage content with clickbait headlines, aren’t fairing as well. Crowdtangle has found a precipitous drop in their engagement since January. As Digiday detailed:

Distractify, for example, saw its monthly traffic decline 78 percent year over year in January and 84 percent year over year in February, with most of the declines attributable to declines in Facebook referral traffic.
The interaction rate on 9gag’s posts fell 50 percent month over month from January to February, according to CrowdTangle data; Viral Thread’s interaction rate fell 32 percent, the second-largest decline month over month, over the past 12 months, according to CrowdTangle data.

Facebook also seems to be rewarding breaking news stories; data released from NewsWhip in March found that over half the stories that were receiving the most engagement fit into the breaking news/hard news category.

As for conservative publishers and politicians? Like I said, the data is noisy, but it’s at least suggesting that they’re fairing better than their liberal counterparts. Here’s ThinkProgress summarizing data from Crowdtangle:

From March 2017 to March 2018, the total interactions on the Rachel Maddow Show page, went from 3.3 million to 1.6 million … Over the same time period, on the Facebook page of The Young Turks, perhaps the most popular independent provider of liberal videos online, total interactions declined from 2.3 million to 760,000. Meanwhile, interactions on Mic’s Facebook page, a left-leaning publisher with 3.8 million Facebook fans, plummeted from 8.9 million to 475,000.

Liberal politicians are also getting pummeled. While Donald Trump’s Facebook engagements have remained relatively steady, the pages for Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, two liberal firebrands who have thrived on social media, experienced sharp drops. Sanders’s engagements are a quarter of what they were about a year ago. For Warren, the decrease has been even more stark.

The landscape is changing; there’s no doubt of that. Publishers are right to be wary of Facebook and should be focused on diversifying their traffic sources. But Facebook’s referral traffic hasn’t gone away, and, for those producing meaningful content that users want to share, it’ll remain an important source of referral traffic for the foreseeable future.

So when publishers, political or otherwise, try to spur a cavalcade of pitchforks to beat down Facebook’s door, be skeptical. The Facebook algorithm apocalypse has been greatly exaggerated.

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Simon Owens is a tech and media journalist living in Washington, DC. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook, or LinkedIn. Email him at simonowens@gmail.com. For a full bio, go here.