Here’s a Look Inside Facebook’s Data Wars

One day in April, the individuals behind CrowdTangle, a knowledge analytics software owned by Facebook, realized that transparency had limits.

Brandon Silverman, CrowdTangle’s co-founder and chief government, assembled dozens of staff on a video name to inform them that they had been being damaged up. CrowdTangle, which had been operating quasi-independently inside Facebook since being acquired in 2016, was being moved below the social community’s integrity workforce, the group attempting to rid the platform of misinformation and hate speech. Some CrowdTangle staff had been being reassigned to different divisions, and Mr. Silverman would now not be managing the workforce daily.

The announcement, which left CrowdTangle’s staff in surprised silence, was the results of a yearlong battle amongst Facebook executives over knowledge transparency, and the way a lot the social community ought to reveal about its internal workings.

On one facet had been executives, together with Mr. Silverman and Brian Boland, a Facebook vp accountable for partnerships technique, who argued that Facebook ought to publicly share as a lot info as potential about what occurs on its platform — good, unhealthy or ugly.

On the opposite facet had been executives, together with the corporate’s chief advertising officer and vp of analytics, Alex Schultz, who anxious that Facebook was already making a gift of an excessive amount of.

They argued that journalists and researchers had been utilizing CrowdTangle, a type of turbocharged search engine that permits customers to research Facebook traits and measure put up efficiency, to dig up info they thought-about unhelpful — exhibiting, for instance, that right-wing commentators like Ben Shapiro and Dan Bongino had been getting way more engagement on their Facebook pages than mainstream information retailers.

These executives argued that Facebook ought to selectively disclose its personal knowledge within the type of fastidiously curated reviews, fairly than handing outsiders the instruments to find it themselves.

Team Selective Disclosure received, and CrowdTangle and its supporters misplaced.

An inside battle over knowledge transparency might sound low on the checklist of worthy Facebook investigations. And it’s a column I’ve hesitated to jot down for months, partially as a result of I’m uncomfortably near the motion. (More on that in a minute.)

But the CrowdTangle story is necessary, as a result of it illustrates the best way that Facebook’s obsession with managing its repute typically will get in the best way of its makes an attempt to wash up its platform. And it will get to the center of one of many central tensions confronting Facebook within the post-Trump period. The firm, blamed for all the pieces from election interference to vaccine hesitancy, badly desires to rebuild belief with a skeptical public. But the extra it shares about what occurs on its platform, the extra it dangers exposing uncomfortable truths that would additional injury its picture.

The query of what to do about CrowdTangle has vexed a few of Facebook’s prime executives for months, based on interviews with greater than a dozen present and former Facebook staff, in addition to inside emails and posts.

These individuals, most of whom would communicate solely anonymously as a result of they weren’t approved to debate inside conversations, stated Facebook’s executives had been extra anxious about fixing the notion that Facebook was amplifying dangerous content material than determining whether or not it really was amplifying dangerous content material. Transparency, they stated, finally took a again seat to picture administration.

Facebook disputes this characterization. It says that the CrowdTangle reorganization was meant to combine the service with its different transparency instruments, not weaken it, and that prime executives are nonetheless dedicated to growing transparency.

“CrowdTangle is part of a growing suite of transparency resources we’ve made available for people, including academics and journalists,” stated Joe Osborne, a Facebook spokesman. “With CrowdTangle moving into our integrity team, we’re developing a more comprehensive strategy for how we build on some of these transparency efforts moving forward.”

But the executives who pushed hardest for transparency seem to have been sidelined. Mr. Silverman, CrowdTangle’s co-founder and chief government, has been taking day without work and now not has a clearly outlined function on the firm, a number of individuals with data of the scenario stated. (Mr. Silverman declined to remark about his standing.) And Mr. Boland, who spent 11 years at Facebook, left the corporate in November.

“One of the main reasons that I left Facebook is that the most senior leadership in the company does not want to invest in understanding the impact of its core products,” Mr. Boland stated, in his first interview since departing. “And it doesn’t want to make the data available for others to do the hard work and hold them accountable.”

Mr. Boland, who oversaw CrowdTangle in addition to different Facebook transparency efforts, stated the software fell out of favor with influential Facebook executives across the time of final yr’s presidential election, when journalists and researchers used it to indicate that pro-Trump commentators had been spreading misinformation and hyperpartisan commentary with beautiful success.

“People were enthusiastic about the transparency CrowdTangle provided until it became a problem and created press cycles Facebook didn’t like,” he stated. “Then, the tone at the executive level changed.”

Brian Boland, a former vp accountable for partnerships technique and an advocate for extra transparency, left Facebook in November. Credit…Christian Sorensen Hansen for The New York Times

The Twitter Account That Launched 1,000 Meetings

Here’s the place I, considerably reluctantly, are available in.

I began utilizing CrowdTangle a few years in the past. I’d been searching for a method to see which information tales gained probably the most traction on Facebook, and CrowdTangle — a software used primarily by viewers groups at information publishers and entrepreneurs who need to monitor the efficiency of their posts — crammed the invoice. I discovered that via a kludgey workaround, I may use its search characteristic to rank Facebook hyperlink posts — that’s, posts that embrace a hyperlink to a non-Facebook website — so as of the variety of reactions, shares and feedback they obtained. Link posts weren’t a excellent proxy for information, engagement wasn’t a excellent proxy for recognition and CrowdTangle’s knowledge was restricted in different methods, but it surely was the closest I’d come to discovering a type of cross-Facebook information leaderboard, so I ran with it.

At first, Facebook was comfortable that I and different journalists had been discovering its software helpful. With solely about 25,000 customers, CrowdTangle is one in all Facebook’s smallest merchandise, but it surely has turn out to be a useful useful resource for energy customers together with world well being organizations, election officers and digital entrepreneurs, and it has made Facebook look clear in contrast with rival platforms like YouTube and TikTok, which don’t launch practically as a lot knowledge.

But the temper shifted final yr after I began a Twitter account known as @FacebooksTop10, on which I posted a each day leaderboard exhibiting the sources of the most-engaged hyperlink posts by U.S. pages, based mostly on CrowdTangle knowledge.

Last fall, the leaderboard was filled with posts by Mr. Trump and pro-Trump media personalities. Since Mr. Trump was barred from Facebook in January, it has been dominated by a handful of right-wing polemicists like Mr. Shapiro, Mr. Bongino and Sean Hannity, with the occasional mainstream information article, cute animal story or Okay-pop fan weblog sprinkled in.

The account went semi-viral, racking up greater than 35,000 followers. Thousands of individuals retweeted the lists, together with conservatives who had been comfortable to see pro-Trump pundits beating the mainstream media and liberals who shared them with jokes like “Look at all this conservative censorship!” (If you’ve been below a rock for the previous two years, conservatives within the United States regularly complain that Facebook is censoring them.)

The lists additionally attracted loads of Facebook haters. Liberals shared them as proof that the corporate was a swamp of toxicity that wanted to be damaged up; progressive advertisers bristled at the concept their content material was showing subsequent to pro-Trump propaganda. The account was even cited at a congressional listening to on tech and antitrust by Representative Jamie Raskin, Democrat of Maryland, who stated it proved that “if Facebook is out there trying to suppress conservative speech, they’re doing a terrible job at it.”

Inside Facebook, the account drove executives loopy. Some believed that the information was being misconstrued and anxious that it was portray Facebook as a far-right echo chamber. Others anxious that the lists would possibly spook traders by suggesting that Facebook’s U.S. person base was getting older and extra conservative. Every time a tweet went viral, I obtained grumpy calls from Facebook executives who had been embarrassed by the disparity between what they thought Facebook was — a clear, well-lit public sq. the place civility and tolerance reign — and the picture they noticed mirrored within the Twitter lists.

As the election approached final yr, Facebook executives held conferences to determine what to do, based on three individuals who attended them. They got down to decide whether or not the knowledge on @FacebooksTop10 was correct (it was), and mentioned beginning a competing Twitter account that might put up extra balanced lists based mostly on Facebook’s inside knowledge.

They by no means did that, however a number of executives — together with John Hegeman, the top of Facebook’s information feed — had been dispatched to argue with me on Twitter. These executives argued that my Top 10 lists had been deceptive. They stated CrowdTangle measured solely “engagement,” whereas the true measure of Facebook recognition could be based mostly on “reach,” or the quantity of people that really see a given put up. (With the exception of video views, attain knowledge isn’t public, and solely Facebook staff have entry to it.)

Last September, Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief government, informed Axios that whereas right-wing content material garnered a lot of engagement, the concept Facebook was a right-wing echo chamber was “just wrong.”

“I think it’s important to differentiate that from, broadly, what people are seeing and reading and learning about on our service,” Mr. Zuckerberg stated.

But Mr. Boland, the previous Facebook vp, stated that was a handy deflection. He stated that in inside discussions, Facebook executives had been much less involved in regards to the accuracy of the information than in regards to the picture of Facebook it offered.

“It told a story they didn’t like,” he stated of the Twitter account, “and frankly didn’t want to admit was true.”

The Trouble With CrowdTangle

Around the identical time that Mr. Zuckerberg made his feedback to Axios, the tensions got here to a head. The Economist had simply printed an article claiming that Facebook “offers a distorted view of American news.”

The article, which cited CrowdTangle knowledge, confirmed that the most-engaged American information websites on Facebook had been Fox News and Breitbart, and claimed that Facebook’s general information ecosystem skewed proper wing. John Pinette, Facebook’s vp of worldwide communications, emailed a hyperlink to the article to a group of executives with the topic line “The trouble with CrowdTangle.”

“The Economist steps onto the Kevin Roose bandwagon,” Mr. Pinette wrote. (See? Told you it was uncomfortably near dwelling.)

Nick Clegg, Facebook’s vp of worldwide affairs, replied, lamenting that “our own tools are helping journos to consolidate the wrong narrative.”

Other executives chimed in, including their worries that CrowdTangle knowledge was getting used to color Facebook as a right-wing echo chamber.

David Ginsberg, Facebook’s vp of selection and competitors, wrote that if Mr. Trump received re-election in November, “the media and our critics will quickly point to this ‘echo chamber’ as a prime driver of the outcome.”

Fidji Simo, the top of the Facebook app on the time, agreed.

“I really worry that this could be one of the worst narratives for us,” she wrote.

Several executives proposed making attain knowledge public on CrowdTangle, in hopes that reporters would cite that knowledge as an alternative of the engagement knowledge they thought made Facebook look unhealthy.

But Mr. Silverman, CrowdTangle’s chief government, replied in an electronic mail that the CrowdTangle workforce had already examined a characteristic to do this and located issues with it. One subject was that false and deceptive information tales additionally rose to the highest of these lists.

“Reach leaderboard isn’t a total win from a comms point of view,” Mr. Silverman wrote.

Mr. Schultz, Facebook’s chief advertising officer, had the dimmest view of CrowdTangle. He wrote that he thought “the only way to avoid stories like this” could be for Facebook to publish its personal reviews about the preferred content material on its platform, fairly than releasing knowledge via CrowdTangle.

“If we go down the route of just offering more self-service data you will get different, exciting, negative stories in my opinion,” he wrote.

Mr. Osborne, the Facebook spokesman, stated Mr. Schultz and the opposite executives had been discussing the way to right misrepresentations of CrowdTangle knowledge, not strategizing about killing off the software.

Just a few days after the election in November, Mr. Schultz wrote a put up for the corporate weblog, known as “What Do People Actually See on Facebook in the U.S.?” He defined that should you ranked Facebook posts based mostly on which obtained probably the most attain, fairly than probably the most engagement — his most popular methodology of slicing the information — you’d find yourself with a extra mainstream, much less sharply partisan checklist of sources.

“We believe this paints a more complete picture than the CrowdTangle data alone,” he wrote.

That could also be true, however there’s a downside with attain knowledge: Most of it’s inaccessible and might’t be vetted or fact-checked by outsiders. We merely need to belief that Facebook’s personal, personal knowledge tells a story that’s very totally different from the information it shares with the general public.

Tweaking Variables

Mr. Zuckerberg is true about one factor: Facebook shouldn’t be a large right-wing echo chamber.

But it does include a large right-wing echo chamber — a type of AM speak radio constructed into the center of Facebook’s information ecosystem, with a hyper-engaged viewers of loyal partisans who love liking, sharing and clicking on posts from right-wing pages, lots of which have gotten good at serving up Facebook-optimized outrage bait at a constant clip.

CrowdTangle’s knowledge made this echo chamber simpler for outsiders to see and quantify. But it didn’t create it, or give it the instruments it wanted to develop — Facebook did — and blaming a knowledge software for these revelations makes no extra sense than blaming a thermometer for unhealthy climate.

It’s value noting that these transparency efforts are voluntary, and will disappear at any time. There are not any laws that require Facebook or every other social media corporations to disclose what content material performs properly on their platforms, and American politicians seem like extra fascinated by preventing over claims of censorship than having access to higher knowledge.

It’s additionally value noting that Facebook can flip down the outrage dials and present its customers calmer, much less divisive information any time it desires. (In reality, it briefly did so after the 2020 election, when it anxious that election-related misinformation may spiral into mass violence.) And there may be some proof that it’s not less than contemplating extra everlasting modifications.

This yr, Mr. Hegeman, the manager accountable for Facebook’s information feed, requested a workforce to determine how tweaking sure variables within the core information feed rating algorithm would change the ensuing Top 10 lists, based on two individuals with data of the undertaking.

The undertaking, which some staff discuss with because the “Top 10” undertaking, continues to be underway, the individuals stated, and it’s unclear whether or not its findings have been put in place. Mr. Osborne, the Facebook spokesman, stated that the workforce seems at a number of rating modifications, and that the experiment wasn’t pushed by a need to alter the Top 10 lists.

As for CrowdTangle, the software continues to be obtainable, and Facebook shouldn’t be anticipated to chop off entry to journalists and researchers within the quick time period, based on two individuals with data of the corporate’s plans.

Mr. Boland, nevertheless, stated he wouldn’t be shocked if Facebook executives determined to kill off CrowdTangle completely or starve it of assets, fairly than coping with the complications its knowledge creates.

“Facebook would love full transparency if there was a guarantee of positive stories and outcomes,” Mr. Boland stated. “But when transparency creates uncomfortable moments, their reaction is often to shut down the transparency.”