Inside Facebook’s Data Wars

One day in April, the individuals behind CrowdTangle, an information analytics device owned by Facebook, realized that transparency had limits.

Brandon Silverman, CrowdTangle’s co-founder and chief govt, assembled dozens of staff on a video name to inform them that they had been being damaged up. CrowdTangle, which had been working quasi-independently inside Facebook since being acquired in 2016, was being moved underneath the social community’s integrity crew, 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 crew everyday.

The announcement, which left CrowdTangle’s staff in shocked 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 interior workings.

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

On the opposite facet had been executives, together with the corporate’s chief advertising and marketing officer and vp of analytics, Alex Schultz, who fearful that Facebook was already freely giving an excessive amount of.

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

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

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

An inside battle over knowledge transparency might sound low on the record of worthy Facebook investigations. And it’s a column I’ve hesitated to write 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 way in which that Facebook’s obsession with managing its status typically will get in the way in which 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 every thing from election interference to vaccine hesitancy, badly needs 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 harm its picture.

The query of what to do about CrowdTangle has vexed a few of Facebook’s high executives for months, in response to 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 licensed to debate inside conversations, stated Facebook’s executives had been extra fearful about fixing the notion that Facebook was amplifying dangerous content material than determining whether or not it truly 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 high executives are nonetheless dedicated to rising 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 govt, has been taking break day and now not has a clearly outlined function on the firm, a number of individuals with data of the state of affairs 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 device fell out of favor with influential Facebook executives across the time of final 12 months’s presidential election, when journalists and researchers used it to point out 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 answerable 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 couple of years in the past. I’d been on the lookout for a strategy to see which information tales gained essentially the most traction on Facebook, and CrowdTangle — a device used primarily by viewers groups at information publishers and entrepreneurs who wish to observe the efficiency of their posts — stuffed the invoice. I discovered that by a kludgey workaround, I may use its search function 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 bought. Link posts weren’t an ideal proxy for information, engagement wasn’t an ideal proxy for recognition and CrowdTangle’s knowledge was restricted in different methods, however it was the closest I’d come to discovering a sort of cross-Facebook information leaderboard, so I ran with it.

At first, Facebook was joyful that I and different journalists had been discovering its device helpful. With solely about 25,000 customers, CrowdTangle is considered one of Facebook’s smallest merchandise, however it has change into a useful useful resource for energy customers together with international 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 almost as a lot knowledge.

But the temper shifted final 12 months once I began a Twitter account referred to as @FacebooksTop10, on which I posted a day by day leaderboard exhibiting the sources of the most-engaged hyperlink posts by U.S. pages, primarily based 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 joyful 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 underneath a rock for the previous two years, conservatives within the United States often 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 info was being misconstrued and fearful that it was portray Facebook as a far-right echo chamber. Others fearful that the lists may spook traders by suggesting that Facebook’s U.S. person base was getting older and extra conservative. Every time a tweet went viral, I bought 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 12 months, Facebook executives held conferences to determine what to do, in response to three individuals who attended them. They set out a crew of knowledge scientists to find out whether or not the knowledge on @FacebooksTop10 was correct (it was), and mentioned beginning a competing Twitter account that may submit extra balanced lists primarily based on Facebook’s inside knowledge.

They by no means did that, however a number of executives — together with John Hegeman, the pinnacle 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 can be primarily based on “reach,” or the quantity of people that truly see a given submit. (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 govt, informed Axios that whereas right-wing content material garnered a number 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 concerning the accuracy of the info than concerning 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 world communications, emailed a hyperlink to the article to a bunch 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 house.)

Nick Clegg, Facebook’s vp of world 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 gained 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 pinnacle 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 a substitute of the engagement knowledge they thought made Facebook look unhealthy.

But Mr. Silverman, CrowdTangle’s chief govt, replied in an electronic mail that the CrowdTangle crew had already examined a function to do this and located issues with it. One concern 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 and marketing officer, had the dimmest view of CrowdTangle. He wrote that he thought “the only way to avoid stories like this” can be for Facebook to publish its personal studies about the preferred content material on its platform, moderately than releasing knowledge by 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 find out how to appropriate misrepresentations of CrowdTangle knowledge, not strategizing about killing off the device.

A couple of days after the election in November, Mr. Schultz wrote a submit for the corporate weblog, referred to as “What Do People Actually See on Facebook in the U.S.?” He defined that in case you ranked Facebook posts primarily based on which bought essentially the most attain, moderately than essentially the most engagement — his most well-liked technique of slicing the info — you’d find yourself with a extra mainstream, much less sharply partisan record 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 an issue with attain knowledge: Most of it’s inaccessible and may’t be vetted or fact-checked by outsiders. We merely need to belief that Facebook’s personal, non-public knowledge tells a narrative that’s very completely different from the info it shares with the general public.

Tweaking Variables

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

But it does comprise an enormous right-wing echo chamber — a sort 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, a lot 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 an information device for these revelations makes no extra sense than blaming a thermometer for unhealthy climate.

It’s price noting that these transparency efforts are voluntary, and will disappear at any time. There are not any laws that require Facebook or another social media corporations to disclose what content material performs properly on their platforms, and American politicians look like extra serious about combating over claims of censorship than having access to higher knowledge.

It’s additionally price noting that Facebook can flip down the outrage dials and present its customers calmer, much less divisive information any time it needs. (In truth, it briefly did so after the 2020 election, when it fearful that election-related misinformation may spiral into mass violence.) And there’s some proof that it’s a minimum of contemplating extra everlasting modifications.

This 12 months, Mr. Hegeman, the manager answerable for Facebook’s information feed, requested a crew to determine how tweaking sure variables within the core information feed rating algorithm would change the ensuing Top 10 lists, in response to two individuals with data of the challenge.

The challenge, which some staff confer with because the “Top 10” challenge, 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 crew appears at a wide range of rating modifications, and that the experiment wasn’t pushed by a want to alter the Top 10 lists.

As for CrowdTangle, the device continues to be accessible, and Facebook shouldn’t be anticipated to chop off entry to journalists and researchers within the brief time period, in response to two individuals with data of the corporate’s plans.

Mr. Boland, nevertheless, stated he wouldn’t be stunned if Facebook executives determined to kill off CrowdTangle fully or starve it of assets, moderately 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.”