More than a year after Facebook changed its News Feed algorithm to make us feel better, new data suggests we’re still sharing the same old garbage as before.
NewsWhip, an analytics company that tracks how content spreads across Facebook, put out a new report looking at how last year’s News Feed changes have affected what’s being shared on Facebook. Unsurprisingly, its findings aren’t very encouraging.
For context: Mark Zuckerberg announced sweeping changes to News Feed last January, promising that “we feel a responsibility to make sure our services aren’t just fun to use, but also good for people’s well-being.” As a result, he said, the company would be making adjustments to News Feed in order to optimize for “helping you have more meaningful social interactions,” rather than pure engagement.
Well, it looks like the algorithm changes have increased engagement. According to NewsWhip, engagement is “way up” in 2019 compared with the previous two years. “2019 to date has seen the most engagement on its content with over 6 billion engagements to English language web content already this year,” NewsWhip writes.
Facebook’s algorithm changes have been working more or less as intended
“A lot of the shares on web content come from non-public Facebook Pages. As such, there is a possibility that Facebook’s friends and family focus, getting people to read what their networks are sharing rather than what pages are promoting, may have contributed to this increase as people shared articles they enjoyed on the network.”
In other words: the data suggests Facebook’s algorithm changes have been working more or less as intended — people are seeing more content shared by people they know rather than pages.
That’s the good news, I guess. The bad news? The changes have done little to address the fact that Facebook still tends to reward inflammatory and often misleading content.
Consider the most-shared articles of 2019 so far, according to NewsWhip. The top story on the list, “Suspected Human Trafficker, Child Predator May Be In Our Area,” is a five-sentence local news story about a Texas man wanted on kidnapping and other charges. Though the story may have been relevant to Waco locals, the fact that this was the most-shared story of the year so far is likely the result of the click-baitey, misleading headline. As Neiman Lab points out, the “in our area” phrasing likely lead a lot of people to blindly share the post, whether or not they had any connection to Waco, Texas.
The next story on the list is also misleading: “You Can’t Give a Lethal Injection to Murderers in New York, But You Can Give One to an Unborn Baby.” That article, from a website called lifenews.com, which got nearly half a million shares, is a reference to New York’s Reproductive Health Act, as is another popular article on NewsWhip’s list, with more than 245,000 shares. Both stories parrot a line PolitiFact and others say is false. The story “oversimplifies and distorts what the New York law allows,” according to the fact-checking organization.
Yet, even though Politifact is one of Facebook’s official fact-checking partners, the debunk appears to have done little to stop the inaccurate message from spreading.
NewsWhip also identified two articles about the so-called Momo challenge, a widely debunked urban legend, as top stories with more than 450,000 shares.
Keep going down the list and it’s easy to see some trends, regardless of the publisher. Facebook shares tend to favor stories that stoke fear and/or outrage. If you spend any amount of time on Facebook, that’s probably not very surprising, but it’s hardly a sign of the improved feel-good News Feed we were promised, either.