CrowdTangle, the analytics tool for social media posts that Facebook acquired five years ago, may not be long for this world, and its mostly independent team within Facebook is now being broken up. The reason: Facebook says that the tool is simply being integrated into its other integrity and transparency efforts, but employees both former and current say it's because CrowdTangle is making Facebook look bad.
The New York Times' Kevin Roose, who was arguably instrumental in putting CrowdTangle data to use in one of the most prominent ways that made Facebook execs uncomfortable, writes today that the story about CrowdTangle's rise and fall within the company "illustrates the way that Facebook’s obsession with managing its reputation often gets in the way of its attempts to clean up its platform."
The story, for now, as Roose reports, is that CrowdTangle's team within Facebook is being broken up, and some of its members are being reassigned to new projects. Brandon Silverman, CrowdTangle’s co-founder and chief executive, is no longer in charge of the team, and it's being moved into and under the integrity team. But internal sources say they wouldn't be surprised if the CrowdTangle tool — which is meant to give journalists and researchers access to Facebook posting data for the purposes of transparency — gets killed off entirely sometime soon.
Roose used CrowdTangle last year to create a Twitter account called @FacebooksTop10, which uses the tool to create a Top 10 list of the link posts with the highest engagement on the platform and posts it on Twitter. The lists have regularly shown how much engagement right-wing news gets on a daily basis compared to everything else — and while engagement alone isn't a gauge of reach or impact, post reach isn't something that outsiders have any data access for.
An example from last September shows how Facebook's (mostly Boomer) user base was frantically engaging with posts from right-wing media and the former president.
The top-performing link posts by U.S. Facebook pages in the last 24 hours are from:— Facebook's Top 10 (@FacebooksTop10) September 9, 2020
1. Fox News
2. Donald J. Trump
3. Ben Shapiro
4. Dan Bongino
5. Blue Lives Matter
6. Fox News
7. Ben Shapiro
8. Sean Hannity
9. Franklin Graham
10. Dan Bongino
Even with Trump out of office, the Twitter account has continued to show how the most-engaged-with link posts are coming from far-right pundits Dan Bongino and Ben Shapiro, without fail, every day.
Facebook executives have reportedly been very unhappy with this, among other uses of CrowdTangle, per the Times piece. And they're hoping to start releasing their own Top 10 lists to show how, if you look at post reach, there's a far broader spectrum of media being consumed, including from mainstream, reliable sources.
But Roose says that without a transparency tool like CrowdTangle, journalists will always be running up against the Facebook PR machine spinning whatever story they like, and burying the data they don't like.
Mark Zuckerberg and others at the company are very concerned with Facebook looking like a right-wing echo chamber.
And, Roose writes:
Mr. Zuckerberg is right about one thing: Facebook is not a giant right-wing echo chamber.
But it does contain a giant right-wing echo chamber — a kind of AM talk radio built into the heart of Facebook’s news ecosystem, with a hyper-engaged audience of loyal partisans who love liking, sharing and clicking on posts from right-wing pages, many of which have gotten good at serving up Facebook-optimized outrage bait at a consistent clip.
CrowdTangle’s data made this echo chamber easier for outsiders to see and quantify. But it didn’t create it, or give it the tools it needed to grow — Facebook did — and blaming a data tool for these revelations makes no more sense than blaming a thermometer for bad weather.
Inside Facebook's Data Wars [New York Times]
Photo: Karsten Winegeart