The newest attempt by Facebook to dispel the notion that its platform is used to spread disinformation and extremist views is not going precisely as intended, it is safe to say.

As a recap – over the past year or so, New York Times journalist Kevin Roose has maintained this Twitter account, which lists the top ten best performing Facebook posts, based on total engagement (Likes, comments and shares), every day.

The data is sourced via CrowdTangle, Facebook’s own analytics platform, and as exemplified here, the daily listing is regularly dominated by right-wing commentators and partisan news outlets, which gives weight to the notion that Facebook plays a significant role in amplifying such content. Add to this the fact that some 70% of Americans now get news content from The Social Network, and it paints the picture that Facebook is a key source of biased misinformation, and likely societal division based on the same.

Facebook, of course, is not pleased with this portrayal, and it attempted to dispel the notion last July by issuing its own counter-report, which compared the data from Roose’s top 10 ranking with its own insights on the links that received the highest reach over the same time period as Roose.

Facebook posts by reach

However, while Roose’ list may indicate that people who engage with specific topics are passionate, and as a result more likely to comment and Like a post, Facebook claims that this is not representative of the most popular content on its platform, which it believes is better indicated by the content that is seen by the broadest range of its users.

It is possible to observe in this example that the most seen posts list, a collection of all material that appears in someone’s News Feed, regardless of whether they interact with it or not, is more balanced, including light-hearted content and stories of broad interest.

The debate over the relative impact and influence of such has raged ever since, with Facebook struggling internally to mitigate the potential negative perceptions of Roose’s daily report, which has reportedly lead to the company making big changes to its CrowdTangle platform as it seeks to re-frame the data the app provides.

And then, just last week, Facebook issued another new counter report, this one focusing on the ‘Most Viewed’ material once again. Facebook claims it will now update the report quarterly in order to give greater insight into exactly what is gaining momentum throughout The Social Network.

Facebook most viewed links Q2

The report is confusing, for various reasons. For one, several of these links in the ‘Most Viewed’ listing for Q2 2021 (above) are essentially spam, which probably highlights another negative element for the platform. But the decision to share this data quarterly also dilutes the impact of news stories – which gain traction over a day, as opposed to three months – while Facebook’s additional data on the most widely viewed domains is also fairly vague.

Facebook most viewed domains Q2

Lots of referral traffic to Twitter, but which tweets are receiving the most attention? There are a lot of YouTube connections, but there are no insights into the actual video that was uploaded. Essentially, the report’s framing appears to be intended to re-shape the notion of what gets shared on Facebook, but it does not give enough conclusive evidence to demonstrate that the more widely seen postings are, in fact, more important.

But then, late on Saturday, another element was added to the story. In response to another report from the New York Times that Facebook actually canned an earlier version of its new ‘Most Viewed’ report because the data looked bad for the company, Facebook’s Andy Stone shared its scrapped Q1 Most Viewed report, which shows, among other things, that a report which fueled anti-vaccination theories was the most viewed link in the first three months of the year.

The article in question, from The Chicago Tribune, is a report on how a doctor died just two weeks after getting the COVID-19 vaccine.

Chigao Tribune example

There is no proof tying the doctor’s death to the COVID vaccination, according to the first sentence of the revised report, which has been clarified. It’s possible that this headline helped feed anti-vaxxers across The Social Network, and with 54 million views on Facebook, it is a substantial level of vaccination hesitancy that may have been fostered by The Social Network.

Therefore, Facebook opted not to disclose this original Q1 update back in April, instead opting to publish the more positive Q2 Most Viewed report instead, which was released only last week.

As explained by Stone:

“Regarding the previously unpublished report from earlier this year and the reasons for delaying its publication. We ultimately decided to postpone it since there were critical system improvements we needed to make. When you take into account the minor variations between the original Q1 report we didn’t disclose and the Q2 report we released earlier this week, you can see that we are making some strides. Hopefully, everyone will notice even greater development in the third quarter.”

The difference between this and a raw data document designed to increase transparency and help people better understand what is actually generating interest on The Social Network is difficult to tell, but it appears increasingly clear that this is a dedicated PR effort with a defined goal in mind, as opposed to a raw data document designed to increase transparency and help people better understand what is actually generating interest on The Social Network.

The following are some of the problems with Facebook’s ‘Most Viewed’ statistics approach:

  • As noted, by reporting the most viewed posts by quarter, Facebook is diluting the potential impacts of news reports, which are more likely to gain traction over a day, or a week, at a time.
  • Of course, Facebook could counter that by noting that it’s also showing the most popular domains – so if content from, say, Brietbart was consistently generating traffic, it would show up here. This is true, but the lack of specific insight into which specific URLs are being shared in the domain report dilutes this claim. It’s also worth noting that the majority of the top domains in the Q1 report are news outlets (9/20), which included Fox News, but that’s changed significantly in the Q2 report (5/10). Whether that’s a result of Facebook’s updated methodology, we don’t know.
  • Is a post more impactful, and influential, if a user sees it, or if they feel compelled to comment, Like or share it with their connections? I would argue the latter is a stronger indicator of engagement, and that would likely have a bigger influence over how people think. For example, if your friend shares an article and includes his/her own commentary about the vaccine causing dangerous side effects, that personal endorsement, based on your established relationship, is likely more impactful than you seeing that same post, without that friend’s comments, in your feed. In this sense, is ‘Most Viewed’ really a viable counter to actual engagement?

Essentially, Facebook’s Most Viewed report raises more questions than it answers for the most part, and the insight value of the data is so muddled that it’s impossible to glean any useful information from it.

However, if you look at Facebook’s Greatest Viewed insights as a true measure of what’s popular on the site and what’s creating the most attention, the following is what you’ll find:

  • UNICEF posts appear in many Facebook user feeds, with 6 UNICEF posts listed in Facebook’s top 20 Most Viewed links listing for Q1 and 2 UNICEF posts shown in Facebook’s Q2 most viewed links report. But they don’t show up at all in Roose’s daily top 10 most engaged list. Why is that? Because Roose doesn’t include UNICEF posts, because their numbers are artificially inflated by their inclusion in Facebook’s COVID-19 info panel. So lots and lots of people are inadvertently shown UNICEF posts, because of the COVID info panel, but that doesn’t mean that anyone is actually clicking on them as a result.
  • It seems likely that several other of the most viewed links had inflated view counts due to the COVID info panel, with reports on school closures in India, Medicines Sans Frontiers and online learning in the Philippines also seeing high exposure counts. If such posts are seeing increased views through Facebook’s info panels, which are essentially internal promotion surfaces, they should be excluded from Facebook’s most viewed listing.
  • Recipes are popular, with recipe sites taking up two of the most viewed link spots in Q1 and one in Q2
  • Both of the Most Viewed reports include one news article each on a missing child being found
  • Both reports include inspirational memes (2 in Q1, 1 in Q2)
  • ABC News and appear to be key news sources, with their home pages appearing in both most viewed link reports
  • The Q2 Most Viewed links report includes a link to a hemp products store, one to a Christian street clothing store, a link to a website where you can buy Vietnam Veterans flags, a link to a Green Bay Packers alumni speakers bureau, and a link to an info page on the London Edge fashion show. Either these are incredibly popular on Facebook or people are spamming these links very heavily (evidence suggests the latter).
  • Right-wing news outlet The Epoch Times sees a lot of exposure on Facebook

As you can see, there isn’t much to go on in terms of content trends that may impact your Facebook strategy, and the scope of links basically simply speaks to a lot of spam, which isn’t indicative of influence in any way.

It’s hard for me to believe that 37 million individuals on Facebook have expressed delight in seeing a link to this page appear in their news feeds, to put it mildly.

Facebook example page

However, Facebook is attempting to argue that these’most visited’ sites demonstrate that the app is not only comprised of conspiracy theories and disinformation links, and that the pages that users actually see in the app are more innocuous in nature.

So there’s nothing to see here, and there’s nothing to be concerned about – Facebook is not boosting hazardous movements.

As a result of the examples provided, I don’t believe that Facebook has done much to dispel the contention of Roose’s listings. However, based on reports, the back and forth here may be sufficient for Facebook to reformat the data it provides via CrowdTangle. However, this would only serve to reduce transparency and ensure that more questions remain.

Is it possible that Facebook will wind up in this position? Who knows, but for the time being, the organization’s efforts to contradict the dominant narrative are not having the desired effect on the public.