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By Thomas Baekdal - August 2021

Analysis of the Facebook top viewed content report

This is an archived version of a Baekdal/Basic newsletter (it's free). It is sent out about once per week and features the latest articles as well as news and trends about the media industry. If you want to get the next one, don't hesitate to add your email to the list.

Welcome back to the newsletter. Today, we are mostly just going to talk about the recently released Facebook report outlining the top viewed content in the Facebook newsfeed. I'm going to give you my analysis and reaction to this as a media analyst and talk about how we acted in the press.

The second story is about a new lecture recently posted about solution-journalism, and its subset, project journalism. I'm talking more about this below, but here is a quick link.

Facebook Q1 Content Transparency Report (USA)

Most of you have probably already heard about or even read the new Facebook content transparency report for US activity in the first quarter of 2021, and by now, you have probably seen many of the news articles about it, which announce that the top content on Facebook is misleading posts about vaccines.

But, what you may not have noticed is that many media analysts and commentators (including me), have been fuming in the background because the way people have talked about it is misleading.

But, to explain why, let me do two things here. First, let's analyze the report, and secondly, let's analyze how it was reported and reacted to.

The report is really boring

The first thing to note about the report is that it is really, really boring. There is essentially no new information in it, but it does clarify and define some of the numbers. As a media analyst, I appreciate that. I have called on Facebook many times to provide more precise data.

In the beginning of the report, it talks about what people see in general on Facebook, and they start by illustrating just how small a share of the total is top content (0.05%).

Now, this data is completely useless. This doesn't tell us anything, because you can make this whatever you want it to be. Since this number is defined by the top content, all you need to do is change how many articles you measure as 'the top'. If you want a very low percentage, you just pick the top 20 articles, but if you want a bigger number, you define the 'top' as the top one million articles.

So, this number really doesn't help us understand anything, except for the total scale of Facebook (which I will get back to in just a second).

What is interesting though is the next part, where Facebook details what actually is in people's newsfeed.

What we learn is that the newsfeed is dominated by people interacting with each other. Most of the posts are just from family and friends, groups they follow, etc.

Only a tiny part of the total has anything to do with things outside of Facebook. As they explain: "Only 15% of content views that happen in News Feed in the US are on posts that contain links".

This also fits with another thing we know, which is that the 'news' specific links (like those going to the press), is only about 4% of the total views. This makes sense if only 15% of posts have a link. Then 4% of those would go to news, and others would go to web shops, brands, and other things on the internet that people like to link to.

Again, there is nothing new about this, except, we now have way more precise data.

The reason why Facebook is spending so much time pointing this out is that in the press, this is one thing we often get wrong. So many news articles about Facebook make it sound like Facebook is overrun by news-related bad behavior. We see articles calling it a 'cesspool'. We have articles explaining how this external fake news site is somehow dominating something.

We see the same with other platforms, like YouTube. If you read what we have to say about that in the press, we make it sound like YouTube only has the worst content ever, and I have even seen journalists calling for YouTube to be closed because of it.

This is fundamentally not true, and it has never been true. It is not true for Facebook, and neither is it true for YouTube. And, I'm not just saying that because of this report. We know this from multiple sources, including several independent studies that all collectively tell us the same thing. Any time you look at what is happening on those platforms, the vast majority of activity has nothing to do with anything we focus on in the news.

This does not mean there isn't a problem on Facebook (there is). But the problem is often not how we define it in the press.

Facebook then highlights the top 20 domains and URLs.

First, let's look at the domains. The top 20 domains account for 2.2% of all views. And when I look at this list ... I mean, there is nothing here. This list is just average internet activity. You have YouTube at the top, some news sites, some other social sites, some random links ... there is nothing here.

As a media analyst, I look at this and just go ... ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

The only two things that I did notice are:

  1. Gofundme: I'm kind of shocked that, in the US, this is the fourth most viewed domain. I'm pretty sure that if you were to look at any other western country, it would be nothing like this. That's an astonishing amount of people begging for money. (This is a news story in itself).
  2. I'm very surprised that Facebook lists as a 'domain', since it's actually one of those short url services that leads to another domain. I know for a fact that Facebook knows what that other domain is (the real domain behind it). So, I just find it odd that this is not what they used here.

But other than that, there is really nothing here to look at. There is no scandal here.

But then we come to the top URLs, the actual links. Again, Facebook chose to focus on the top 20.

Now, before we talk about the things in this list below, I just need to talk about numbers. For instance, the top article has 53 million 'content viewers'. This is a derivative of 'content views' which is a metric that is listing how many times a post was in view in the newsfeed as people scrolled through it, and content viewers is an estimate of how many individual people did that.

But what this number does not mean is, how many people were actually influenced by these posts. And, as a newspaper, you know this. You know that views on Facebook have very little meaning. All you need to do is to look at the Facebook analytics for your newspaper's Facebook page, and then compare the amount of views Facebook says your post got, to how many people decided to click on it (and then you can further compare that to how many people end up reading the article).

And you also know this as a person. When you use Facebook, do you actually pay attention to everything in your newsfeed as you scroll through it? No, of course not.

So remember this when you read the list below. Having 53 million content viewers does not mean that 53 million people were impacted by it. You know this, and I know this, but I still see a lot of people on Twitter who claim that is what it means.

Anyway, let's look at the list. Here we see that the top articles are just normal things that people might be interested in, there is nothing really special happening here ... except for the one at the very top.

That is a news article from the Chicago Tribune (but originally written by the South Florida Sun Sentinel).

The problem with this article is that it's driving COVID vaccine fears, and fueling the anti-vaccine movement ... and it's misleading.

At the time this article was posted, nobody knew if this person had died because of the vaccine or not, and today there is still no proof. But as newspapers, we still chose to run the story.

We are in the middle of a pandemic, every other data we have tells us that the Pfizer vaccine works and is safe, and yet, as a newspaper, we decided to link a death to the vaccine, without any facts to support such a claim.

And, I wish I could say this is an isolated case, but we all know it isn't. Here, for instance, is the New York Times posting the very same story.

And when we then look at the article metadata, we see the tags used have very clear intent. It's painfully obvious that the New York Times wanted this to be associated with the vaccine. I mean, look at this.

But, again, remember, no link has been found, and at the time it was published, it was not yet known if any link could be found.

And this crap has been going on for more than a year. Even before we had the vaccines, we saw articles like this:

This article was also a lie. This person didn't even get the vaccine. He was in a control group who only got a placebo. But again, we chose to publish the story before we had any facts.

Here is another example. This time the newspaper did actually have the facts. The official said that it wasn't linked to the vaccine. And yet, they decided to run with this story anyway.

And I could go on and on about this. There are literally thousands of similar examples of this from every part of the world. It's irresponsible journalism in the extreme!

So, when we go to Facebook and we see that one of these articles is the top viewed throughout all of the first quarter of 2021, is that a problem? Yes, that's definitely a problem.

But, it's not a Facebook problem. First of all, that article from the Chicago Tribune only represents 0.0039% of the total views on Facebook during that period. So, it's not like this is dominating Facebook.

More than that, it's not a Facebook specific problem. Articles like this rank high everywhere. And as a newspaper, you know this. You know that if you publish articles that say: "OMG this person died shortly after getting vaccinated" it will get a higher than average amount of page views.

We know that. So, pretending that this is a Facebook problem is a form of misinformation in itself.

And then we have the part of responsibility. Who is responsible here?

Well, as Amy Klobuchar, U.S. Senator from Minnesota tweeted:

Platforms like Facebook must take more responsibility for letting deadly medical misinformation like this spread.

But wait a minute. Facebook wasn't the one who posted this. The Chicago Tribune did. Why is Facebook the one who needs to be responsible for this? Shouldn't that be us, the press?

Why isn't she saying:

Newspapers like the Chicago Tribune must take more responsibility for letting deadly medical misinformation like this spread.

This article was bad back when it was originally posted, and it's even worse today when proof has still not been found (nor is it likely to ever be linked to the vaccine). So why is this article still available on their site?

Even if Facebook did take it down (which I think they should), it is still online on all the newspaper sites. Whereas if the Chicago Tribune took it down (which again, I think they should), it would be gone everywhere.

So, who is actually responsible here?

As a media analyst, this is one of those things that makes me furious. We are supposed to have a higher standard because we are the press. But here, we have the lowest standard, and we are using it to mislead the public.

Take a look at The Washington Post article about this report. This is the headline. Misinformation about vaccines is the most popular on Facebook.

Okay, first of all, this is not true. The report does not come to this conclusion at all. Sure, the top most viewed article is vaccine misinformation, but it only represents 0.039% of the total views on Facebook. So, you cannot claim it is the 'most popular'.

And it isn't just the headline. It's in the article too:

Facebook said Saturday evening that an article raising concerns that the coronavirus vaccine could lead to death was the top performing link in the United States on its platform from January through March of this year, acknowledging the widespread reach of such material for the first time.

This is a lie.

But that is not what pisses me off the most. What really pisses me off is that when you read the WaPo article, you get to the part where they just tell lies about the top article. As they wrote:

For example, the article that surged earlier this year on Facebook's platform, which is used by more than 2.8 billion people each month, was a factual article from the South Florida Sun Sentinel (distributed by the Chicago Tribune) about the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention investigating the death of a doctor who passed away two weeks after taking the coronavirus vaccine, according to the report. (Months later, the medical examiner's office found that there wasn't enough evidence to say whether the vaccine played a role in the doctor's death).

First of all, WaPo tries to imply scale. They tell you that the article 'surged' and that Facebook has 2.8 million people, totally ignoring the fact that it only accounted for 0.0039% of the views.

So this is another form of deception.

But then they say that it was "a factual article from the South Florida Sun Sentinel (distributed by the Chicago Tribune)".

What? ... no seriously, WHAT?!?!? It's the same freaking article!!

Just stop and think about what is actually happening here. The Washington Post is saying that when this article is on Facebook, it's misinformation, and illustrates how horrible Facebook is. But when it's in a newspaper, it's factual journalism.

And what saddens me is that, after WaPo published that article, so many of my friends in the media reshared it as proof that Facebook is bad (that's not what the report proves at all). I have politicians calling for action, which other media were happy about. And I have general members of the public who think that misinformation is a specific Facebook problem.

This is inexcusable.

Again, as the press we are supposed to have a higher standard. This is not a high standard. This is lobbyism disguised as journalism.

The final thing in the Facebook report is a list of the top 20 Facebook pages. And again, it's a really boring list that only represents a tiny share (1.18%) of the total views.

The only thing that really stands out here is the one in 19th place. This is an ultra-right wing news site, with a very questionable form of journalism. Others might name Fox News as a problem, and in Europe, people would be saddened to see the Daily Mail scoring that high, considering how much anti-EU misinformation and hate it has generated.

However, as a media analyst, when I look at this list, what I mostly just see is 'low-intent micro-moment' content. I see pages with the type of posts where people mostly just look because they have a break and they are bored.

But again, this is nothing new.

Let me show you something. If I go to my country (Denmark), and I look up which newspapers and magazines get the most traffic to their sites, I get this list.

What you see here is that the top two news sites, by far, are BT and Ekstra Bladet. Both tabloid newspapers that look like this:

We see the same with magazines. The top magazines are the gossip magazines, which write about celebrities and what the royals are doing.

So, what we see in the list of top Facebook pages is exactly the same pattern as what we see in the traditional media industry. There is no difference here.


So, as a media analyst, I look at this report, and there is literally nothing in it that, in any way, makes me think: "OMG". The Facebook report is just boring. There is nothing new in it. There is no scandal, no revelations ... nothing!

But in the press, we are trying to make it sound like this report is somehow the biggest revelation ever. It's not.


Project journalism in the age of COVID

My final story for you today is a new lecture I have put together. It's 55 minutes long, where I explain the concepts around solution-journalism using a forest fire in Canada and the blizzard in Texas as examples, and talk about project-journalism (a subset of solution-journalism), where I use the example of COVID.

So, take a look at: Project journalism in the age of COVID.

Now, one thing that is slightly controversial about this lecture is that both solution-journalism and project-journalism change the role of journalism from 'just reporting' into an active part of the solution.

Many of my friends in the media are very skeptical about this. I have already received many comments from people saying that journalism should not be used for any specific goal.

So, I ran a poll on Twitter, where I asked whether my followers (who are mostly media people) believed that the press should help convince people to get vaccinated.

The result was that 2/3 believed that it was.

Obviously, implied in this question is that this is based on facts. We know that vaccines are important. We know that they work. We know that they are critical to ending this pandemic.

So, implied in this question is that it's a fact-based role. I'm not asking if journalism should be used to convince people of anything. That's not the question. The question was, when we have a societal problem, with a fact-based solution, should we align our editorial focus to be a part of that solution?

And, as you can see, most people from my Twitter feed think that we should.

But again, take a look at: Project journalism in the age of COVID.

This is an archived version of a Baekdal/Basic newsletter (it's free). It is sent out about once per week and features the latest articles as well as news and trends about the media industry. If you want to get the next one, don't hesitate to add your email to the list.


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Thomas Baekdal

Founder, media analyst, author, and publisher. Follow on Twitter

"Thomas Baekdal is one of Scandinavia's most sought-after experts in the digitization of media companies. He has made ​​himself known for his analysis of how digitization has changed the way we consume media."
Swedish business magazine, Resumé


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