The Battle Over Facebook’s Top 10 List
What kind of news does the news feed feed when the news feed does feed news?
Since July, New York Times journalist Kevin Roose has been posting daily lists of the top 10 most popular link posts on Facebook in the United States, under the Twitter handle @facebookstop10. The lists, which tend to be dominated by conservative and even right-wing sources, have become a touchstone for critics of the social network’s role in shaping Americans’ news consumption and political views. They’ve also been cited as counterevidence to the notion — popular on the right — that Facebook suppresses or even censors conservative viewpoints. Roose draws the data from Facebook’s own analytics tool, CrowdTangle.
This week, Facebook pushed back. The company published a blog post sharing new types of data on its most popular sources of content, aiming to give a more nuanced picture of the news feed’s composition. And it did, albeit only in snapshots, which would be hard to interpret for anyone not already steeped in this kind of data. The broad takeaway from Facebook’s lists was that the news stories people see most on Facebook tend to come largely from established, mainstream sources, after all — not the firebrands that populate Roose’s lists.
Wonky though the debate may be, it goes to the heart of Facebook’s influence on the media and our democracy. I wrote last week that, in many ways, Facebook is the mainstream media now. Understanding whether its news feed is a factory for right-wing propaganda, a mirror of the broader media sphere, or something else sui generis carries critical implications for debates over social media’s impact on society and how online platforms should be regulated.
This week, I spoke with both a Facebook representative and Roose to better grasp just what the data show, what it means, and how much we still don’t know about what people are really seeing, reading, and engaging with on Facebook — or other social platforms, for that matter. The Facebook representative declined to be quoted, while Roose was happy to talk at length on the record.