Facebook’s algorithm change hasn’t obliterated fact-checkers’ engagement — yet
Facebook’s pivot to baby pictures has yet to cause real damage to the reach of fact-checking pages.
On Jan. 11, the social network announced it would increase the visibility of posts from friends and family over those from public pages. This sparked a wave of preoccupation and discontent among publishers on the heels of a tough year for the media.
Facebook used to be responsible for about 30 to 40 percent of referrals to customers of Parse.ly, an analytics firm. That figure had been falling in the second half of 2017 — at least relative to other referral sources — and most analysts predicted publishers would be taking a big hit from the new changes.
On CJR, Mathew Ingram also posited that by prioritizing content friends are sharing and reacting to, the algorithm variation might adversely impact the company’s efforts to combat misinformation. Fake news is nothing if not engaging, after all.
Seven weeks later, the News Feed changes have been rolled out globally, a Facebook spokesperson confirmed in an email to Poynter. For the moment, however, fact-checking organizations do not seem to have suffered from significantly reduced visibility — at least in absolute terms. (Disclosure: Facebook has sponsored past Poynter training.)
Over the past month and a half, we collected the interactions and shares of the Facebook pages of 30 fact-checking projects around the world through CrowdTangle. We cross-checked that with Google Analytics and Facebook data shared by individual organizations to get the best sense of how the platform’s move to prioritize posts from friends and family has affected fact-checkers.
The topline is that, as of March 1, the worst-case scenario predictions have not materialized.
Interactions and shares fell significantly in the first week of February, but that is only because of high numbers the week before. In a sample dominated by U.S. fact-checkers — PolitiFact, Snopes, Factcheck.org and The Washington Post Fact Checker accounted for 81 percent of interactions and 87 percent of shares, presumably driven by the State of the Union address.
This seems to be in line with the trends in the Parse.ly dashboard for the past month. Clare Carr, vice president of marketing at Parse.ly, told Poynter in an email that they haven’t seen a discernible trend up or down during the time of Facebook’s announcement.
Facebook shares were up for Parse.ly customers in the past week, Carr said, climbing back to around the same level that they were in mid-January after a brief trough.
The year-over-year trend in interactions and shares for fact-checkers is much starker — but again, probably explainable at least in part by political events in the U.S. Early last year, Donald Trump’s inauguration helped maintain the record traffic major American fact-checking websites had registered in 2016.
But even within the sample of large U.S. fact-checkers — which saw a 43 percent drop in total interactions from the same period in 2017 to 2018 — there is variability.
PolitiFact, a Poynter-owned project, had the highest total engagement numbers in 2017 in the sample and is more closely tied to the political cycle. It saw a major dip over the past year.
But executive director Aaron Sharockman told Poynter that hasn’t necessarily been reflected in its overall traffic, which is increasingly gaining referrals from Google News and search at least in part due to a highlighting feature. Carr said that, among Parse.ly's clients, Facebook was down 3 percent and Google up 5 percent in referrals from January to February.
“There are still opportunities on Facebook but not quite as many,” he said. “(We) can’t just throw up posts and expect pageviews in return.”
Snopes, a fact-checking site more focused on debunking viral hoaxes about current events — such as those related to the recent mass shooting at a Florida high school — hasn’t seen the same dip in Facebook engagement.
“A cursory look at our traffic numbers shows we saw a 7 percent increase in referral traffic from Facebook and a 20 percent overall increase in pageviews in February 2018 compared to February 2017,” Vinny Green, vice president of operations, told Poynter in a message. “It's also important to note that we generate the majority of our traffic from organic search (~60 percent) rather than social media, a referral channel that continues to grow for us.”
Ironically, its most engaging article in February had to do with Facebook’s algorithm, according to BuzzSumo.
Outside the U.S., fact-checkers saw little change in their Facebook engagement since the January announcement, according to both CrowdTangle and Parse.ly data. After a brief peak during the last week of the month, engagement levels plateaued before slightly rising last week — trends that were mirrored in Facebook traffic reports from several different fact-checkers.
Just like in the U.S., that trend comes amid a year-over-year decrease in engagement — approximately 26 percent in shares and 18 percent in interactions. Turkish fact-checker Doğruluk Payı was especially hard-hit, suffering a 57 percent drop in total engagement between Jan. 3 and Feb. 23 from the same period in 2017, according to data sent to Poynter by digital operations coordinator Denizcan Sarı.
While founder Baybars Örsek said that drastic decline was most likely due to higher than usual figures in the buildup to a referendum in April 2017, it’s uncertain what factors could be affecting the overall decrease given the wide variety of countries represented. But in the case of British fact-checking charity Full Fact, it’s hard to find a clear trend at all, according to analytics data sent to Poynter.
“I would be very wary about drawing conclusions based on this short a time frame,” said Phoebe Arnold, head of communications and impact at Full Fact, in an email to Poynter.
Matt Navarra, director of social media for The Next Web, told Poynter in an email that the data suggest fact-checkers have thus far uniquely escaped any decreased reach as a result of Facebook’s algorithm change. However, those findings can’t be extrapolated to other pages or media outlets and, by extension, the change as a whole.
“Looking solely at this data, it would suggest fact-checker type pages do appear to have been impacted less than some have predicted,” he said. “However, we don't know for sure how other pages have fared.”
In a January press release, Adam Mosseri, head of News Feed at Facebook, said the change would “vary from Page to Page, driven by factors including the type of content they produce and how people interact with it.” In that equation, fact-checkers might have a unique advantage, Navarra said.
“Pages which share news content which is controversial, polarising or spark debate (which fact-checking pages may post more often than others) could also be their savior,” he said. “It would be entirely plausible that these pages are not seeing such dramatic drops in their engagement or reach metrics due to the content sparking above-average levels of commenting.”
Another potential explanation for the permeance of fact-checking’s reach on Facebook: audience interest.
“These sorts of pages (fact-checkers) may have a higher chance than most pages to be selected by users as one of their 'See-First' picks," Navarra said.
At the same time, it’s too early to tell what impact the News Feed change will have on fact-checkers’ reach. Since Facebook made the announcement seven weeks ago, there isn’t enough data to make a definitive assessment of whether or not it will harm organizations in the long run.
But for now, it seems like fact checks haven’t been flushed out of News Feeds by baby pics.
How have you seen the Facebook News Feed algorithm change affect your engagement and referrals? Let us know at firstname.lastname@example.org for possible inclusion in a future story. We’ll be checking in on fact-checkers’ analytics over the next several months and publish updates as necessary.