UPVOTE THE MIDTERMS
The week of October 19, 2014
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How Facebook is wrecking political news

By Aaron Sankin

It’s almost impossible to overstate how important Facebook is to online news sites, which live and die at the whims of the social network’s algorithm.

With the 2014 midterm elections racing to the Nov. 4 finish line, however, this imbalance of power has become downright dangerous.

The Kernel’s publisher, the Daily Dot, regularly gets over half of its daily traffic from Facebook. No other social network even comes close—not Twitter, not Tumblr, and especially not Ello. It would be a shock if other sites putting out news or entertainment stories had traffic figures that looked substantially different.

In a media environment where every piece of #content is primed to go viral, this fact isn’t all that surprising. Facebook is a huge driver of traffic, with over 1.3 billion active users looking for something to Like. If Facebook were a country, it would have roughly the same population as China. Not only that, but Facebook has scientifically calculated its system to maximize the likelihood of its users liking and sharing content, which drives readers across the Web.

That’s just how it works in this Facebook-dominated digital world.

Once you stop to think about that, however, the entire system seems insane. If you’re a journalist, or even someone who cares about the role journalism plays in society, it’s utterly terrifying.

The lion’s share of the mechanism for disseminating information from professional news gatherers to readers is now handled almost entirely by a company with a frustratingly opaque method of operation and interests that don’t necessarily dovetail with news organizations or their readers. Publications haven’t just lost control over their distribution models to a decentralized collective—they’ve effectively ceded it to a 30-year-old Harvard dropout in a gray hoodie.

“Publishers have to realize that Facebook is not the only avenue for getting their content out there.” —Duy Linh Tu

Facebook’s centrality forces everyone in online publishing to move as rapidly as possible to adapt to every little change in the way Facebook’s algorithm selects what pops up in its users’ News Feeds. These outlets fear that if they don’t constantly adapt, Facebook’s enormous traffic firehose will suddenly point in another direction.

The most significant reconfiguration of the way Facebook determines what shows up in News Feeds came early this year with the institution of trending topics. On its surface, trending topics seem like a welcome change—part of Facebook’s push to deemphasize cheesy, superficial memes in favor of quality journalism and other types of professionally created material that prevents Facebook from exclusively becoming the domain of the Internet’s lowest common denominator.

Months later, it’s clear the implementation of trending topics has had a deeply pernicious effect on the way news is produced. As we come on the midterm elections in November, a time when it is especially important to keep the public informed, quality journalism and the way that Facebook’s trending topics rewards journalists for doing journalism could not be more diametrically opposed.

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The way most Facebook users experience trending topics is a little column that runs along the website’s upper right-hand side.

Here’s what mine looked like one afternoon in early October:

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Clicking on any one of those links will lead to a page with a collection of stories about Comcast, Fleetwood Mac, or the glowing ball of wonderful that is Kristen Schaal. But the real power of trending topics is the ability to get stories in front of users who might not actively seek out that news.

The average post put out by basically any page on Facebook will only be seen by under 10 percent of the total users who have “liked” that page. If a piece of content is shared by a lot of those users (i.e. “going viral”), it gets seen by a much larger audience—but the odds of something going viral, therefore bringing in more ad dollars for the publication blessed with such luck, is increased exponentially when that initial reach expands.

Pushing out a post on an active trending topic does precisely that. While the actual boost may vary, it can run the gamut from a 50 percent increase over the standard number of people who would normally see it to the rare 20-fold increase. For an online publication, these types of numbers are basically a gold mine.

Facebook makes it really difficult to discern precisely how any of this actually happens. All anyone can do is feed posts into Facebook’s black box and try to make sense of what comes out the other end.

“The funny thing about social media is that the general principle is that nothing attracts a crowd like a crowd,” says Duy Linh Tu, director of the digital media program at Columbia Journalism School. “If you have a million followers, you’ll get two million followers. If you only have one, you’ll probably stay at one.”

Facebook may be the traffic heart of online journalism, but it’s pumping increasingly thin blood through its veins.

Tu’s social media maxim is the underlying principle behind trending topics. The system works by analyzing the behavior of Facebook users to see if there are certain subjects that suddenly see a significant spike in activity. Seeing that its users think those stories are important, Facebook uses trending topics to boost those stories to a wider audience. If the data shows a lot of people are liking and sharing stories about Alfonso Ribeiro resurrecting the Carlton on Dancing with the Stars, the site will show stories about it to even more people, making the stories’ virality even more infectious.

Facebook loves it when its users engage with the site because engaged users spend more time on Facebook. Publishers love it because not only do they get a chance at crazy traffic, but it’s possible for them to see that a narrative is trending, create their own piece on the subject, and ride the trending topics wave into an ever-churning sea of clicks.

This scenario encourages the worst kind of journalism. If the window was nonexistent and seeing something on the trending topics sidebar meant it was already too late catch the wave, that would be one thing. It would be another if a trending topic boost lasted for a day or two, giving time for real reporting. But the current sweet spot encourages publications to look for what’s trending and pump out something on that subject as quickly as possible.

Not every story requires an exhaustive reporting process, but a lot of them do. Encouraging fast stories that barely give writers enough time to do even the most cursory research on topics that everyone else is already covering produces lots of quickly aggregated pieces that do little to advance anyone’s understanding of what’s going on, and can amplify any errors that existed in earlier publications’ coverage.

So while Facebook may be the traffic heart of online journalism, it is pumping increasingly thin blood through its veins.

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The reason why all of this is matters for political coverage is that, according to a study conducted last year by the Pew Research Journalism Project, only 16 percent of Facebook users go to the site explicitly for news.

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Screencap via Pew Research

In the grand, idealistic sense, there are two core motivations behind a news organization doing political coverage at all. The first is to keep politicians honest. The second is to give the public a better idea of which politicians to vote for.

People who go seeking out political news on a regular basis probably have a decent idea of which way they’re going to cast their ballot. For people who don’t closely follow politics, however, stumbling across a story on Facebook about how someone is accusing the mayor of their city of embezzlement or an analysis how the president’s policies are affecting the unemployment rate are actually a great way of building an informed electorate.

Once you stop to think about how Facebook works, the entire system seems insane.

Trending topics stories from a particular website don’t just pop up more often in the news feeds of Facebook users who have liked that website—they pop up in the feeds of people who otherwise would not see that content.

But, by structuring trending topics in the way it has, Facebook is making it more difficult for all but the most mainstream stories to break through. More news outlets will all chase the same stories and a larger number of those stories will suck.

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It should be noted that it is not, in any way, in Facebook’s interest to have the content appearing on its site suck. A Facebook overflowing with low-quality content is not a Facebook that draws the near-obsessive devotion of over a billion people—nor is it a Facebook that earned over $150,000 in revenue in the time it took you to read this article, assuming you’re a fast reader.

But it’s not even just about money. Facebook employees, who presumably spend a lot of time on Facebook, don’t like seeing their site filled with terrible stuff. Earlier this year, Facebook Director of Product Mike Hudack posted a rant about the sorry state of the media “They seem incapable of breaking real, meaningful news at Internet speed,” Hudack wrote. “It’s hard to tell who’s to blame. But someone should fix this s**t.”

Hudack’s post raised hackles among journalists because many of them had a pretty good idea of who was to blame: Facebook. Online media had learned to play by the rules of whatever game Facebook had set up so naturally, even top Facebook employees forget they had even set up the game board in the first place.

As a result, Facebook has repeatedly gone out of its way to make public pronouncements about how the company is revamping its algorithm to promote high-quality content. When Facebook triggered a backlash by showing its users an endless stream of ice bucket challenge videos while the streets of Ferguson, Mo., were erupting into generation-defining chaos, the company made a public effort to correct course and steer people toward content that seemed more “important.”

Facebook is making it more difficult for all but the most mainstream stories to break through. More news outlets will all chase the same stories and a larger number of those stories will suck.

“It’s in Facebook’s best interest to help publishers promote good content,” explained Caroline O’Donovan of Harvard’s Neiman Journalism Lab. “No one wants the Internet to be garbage.”

The issue is one that gets right to the heart of the problem: Facebook’s ultimate goal is very different from the goal of content publishers. Facebook wants to make people spend more time on Facebook and, you know, maybe click on an ad or two while they’re there. And people aren’t going to do that if the social network is overrun by shitty memes. When Facebook publicly declared war on “clickbait” stories with misleading headlines, it likely did so because its large-scale presence on the site was likely making users become disillusioned with the entire Facebook experience—even though the bait was generating clicks.

For every time Facebook tells the world, usually through a post on the company’s official blog, that its switching up its algorithm there are dozens, if not hundreds, of times when it makes a significant change that publishers only know about because their traffic suddenly craters or spikes. Facebook’s fear with shedding more sunlight onto how its system work is that, if more details of the algorithm were made public, more people would be able to game the system and get low-quality content in front of a larger share of its users’ eyeballs.

Even so, publishers are left doing whatever they know about the algorithm to gain an advantage. New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen—who was personally encouraged by Facebook officials to start publishing original content to the site on his own personal page but has since grown frustrated with Facebook’s lack of transparency—has taken to pretending that every one of his posts is announcing a momentous life event. Doing so tricks Facebook into showing them to pretty much all of his followers:

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“It’s a pathetic little hack, completely embarrassing for a writer, but in a sense it worked,” Rosen told The Kernel, noting his frustration about Facebook’s decision to show all of the people who specifically elected to see his posts a mere trickle instead of what they initially signed up for. “Did you ever hear that line, ‘don’t pick fights with people who buy their ink by the barrel?’ That was a statement about power in a previous media age. Now Facebook is in that position. They buy their ink by the barrel. So don’t think this is anything but a relationship among unequals.”

For his part, Tu insists that the solution for publishers isn’t to try to figure out how to best play Facebook’s game. Nor is it to find a way to game the system. Instead, he argues, the key is for them to wean themselves off the need for Facebook to intermediate between publishers and their audience.

“It’s in Facebook’s best interest to help publishers promote good content. No one wants the Internet to be garbage.” —Caroline O’Donovan

“Publishers have to realize that Facebook is not the only avenue for getting their content out there,” Tu said. “It may be an important one, but it’s just one in a slew of platforms that publishers have to use to get their stories out. It’s a shame because we’re journalists and we’re good at telling stories, but we’ve always been chronically bad at understanding technology. We never had to worry about how our stories got to people. In the old days, it just got to readers on trucks or some kid threw it from his bicycle onto your front porch. But we’ve never really tackled the mechanism for data flow online in the way that Google.

“The problem of what to do if Facebook changes its algorithm and stops giving traffic to news sites is that it’s already too late. Facebook already has us,” Tu continued. “Journalists should be looking at how we can control the distribution mechanisms. We used to control the trucks that delivered papers and control the satellites that delivered TV, but now we can’t grasp that we need to do the same online.”

Unless online publishers figure out how to taking greater control over how their content reaches readers, they’ll be stuck playing catch-up to an algorithm designed to maximize Facebook’s bottom line. If online news sites want to retain any sense of their mission, or even take an active role in their own survival, they’re going to need to find a way to circumvent Facebook.

Until that happens, they’re stuck slowly drowning in Facebook’s barrel of virtual ink.

 

Correction: The name of the director of the digital media program at Columbia Journalism School is Duy Linh Tu. We regret the error.

Illustrations via Veluben/Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0) and Ernst Wallis et al/Wikimedia Commons | Remix by Rob Price