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Facebook says 6% of the content its users see is political

Facebook Tuesday said that political content makes up only about 6% of what users actually see on its platform.

Why it matters: The new number is meant to provide context for reports that have focused on the viral popularity of conservative political content on Facebook.


Details: In a blog post, Facebook's VP of analytics and chief marketing officer Alex Schultz writes that most content that users see in the U.S., even during an election, isn't political.

  • "Based on our analysis, political content makes up about 6% of what you see on Facebook," he says.
  • Schultz notes that Halloween saw twice the increase in posting on Facebook that Election Day did, "even though Facebook prompted people at the top of their News Feed [a number of times] to post about voting."

Schultz also clarified that lists about engagement from Facebook Pages, often published by journalists or researchers using data from Crowdtangle — a measurement company it bought in 2016 — and other third-party measurement companies, are often a misleading indicator of what's truly going viral.

  • "Likes and comments don’t equate to reach," Schultz writes, referencing what Crowdtangle measures. "Our ranking models include much more than just engagement. For example, they can include survey results, like when we ask people whether a post was worth their time."
  • He also notes that these lists often lack measurement of posts that don't include links, and posts that are shared from everyday users, not official Pages (public profiles created by businesses, brands, celebrities, media outlets, causes, etc.).

Be smart: Facebook's post aims to push back on a growing narrative based on lists of "most engaged with" content from Pages that suggests Facebook is dominated by conservative content.

  • To counter that picture, Schultz provides — for the first time — lists of which U.S. news publishers and Pages reached the most people in the U.S. in the week following the last presidential debate. The lists are very different from Crowdtangle's lists of the most engaging posts, which usually come from hyper-partisan publishers.
  • The U.S. Pages with the highest reach from October 23-29 are The Dodo, an animal-focused website; Rick Lax, a magician and author; Steve Harvey; AARP ;Justin Flom, another American magician; Donald Trump; Tasty; Fox News;Delish; and Memes.
  • The U.S. publishers with the highest reach (by domain link) were cnn.com, foxnews.com, nbcnews.com, washingtonpost.com, nytimes.com, cbsnews.com, nypost.com, usatoday.com, people.com, and npr.com.

Between the lines: Facebook's post also addresses confusion over whether the company made changes to its algorithm that would boost certain content just after election results were reported on Election Day, as some speculated online.

  • While pages from more mainstream news outlets like the New York Times, NPR, CNN and the Washington Post saw big spikes in engagement at that time, Facebook says those increases likely occurred in response to users' search for election results information from credible news sources.
  • But it does note that, while temporary measures the company put in place to address potential misinformation may have affected users' rate of engagement with some content at that time, the impact would not have been big enough to affect its ranking.

Yes, but: Journalists and researchers relying on numbers provided by Crowdtangle or Newswhip point out that it's often the most accurate data they are able to get their hands on. Facebook shares little of the data it collects on how content is consumed on its platform.

  • In the future, the company says it will publicly provide more data about things like which posts are getting the most reach and engagement so that journalists can more accurately report on what's going viral on the platform, and what's getting the highest reach.

What's next: In the future, Facebook says it's partnering with a group of researchers from a number of preeminent universities, through the Facebook Open Research and Transparency (FORT) project, to conduct a series of privacy-protected experiments and analysis into what happened on Facebook during this election cycle.

  • Schultz says the company hopes the first research papers on the topic will be published next year.

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