Facebook is refusing to release data to back up its claim that merely 5% of the content people see in the News Feed is news, a key figure in its recently announced plans to remake its powerful main product.
The company and CEO Mark Zuckerberg have repeatedly cited the number while discussing News Feed changes they anticipate will shrink news’ presence to roughly 4% of the News Feed.
Even without opening its books to external scrutiny, new details suggest the analysis has gaps: Notably, it excludes the native videos Facebook trained and paid media organizations to produce (BuzzFeed included), and that it promoted heavily. It also, according to a Facebook spokesperson, “does not encompass everything that may be considered news,” including other native posts without links including infographics, status updates, and photos, leaving open the question of just how dependent on other companies’ intellectual property the social media giant has become. A Facebook spokesperson told BuzzFeed News that including such content would not meaningfully change the numbers.
The News Feed algorithm change, which will prioritize posts that encourage back-and-forth interactions between friends and family, occurs amid a crisis for Facebook, which has struggled to contain the spread of fake news and misinformation on its platform. Last November, the company was called before Congress along with Google and Twitter to testify under oath about the manipulation of its service by Kremlin-linked agents during the 2016 election and its aftermath. Last week, Facebook was named dozens of times in an indictment charging the Kremlin-linked agents for meddling in the US election.
Fixing these problems is Facebook’s top priority in 2018. The company is examining the fundamentals of its News Feed and its ad business in an attempt to protect both from future exploitation. It’s also trying to spark more meaningful interactions between users and examining how it can make sure time on its platform is “well spent.”
A Facebook spokesperson told BuzzFeed News that the amount of news content in the News Feed varies according to the individual. “People who follow news organizations or engage with news stories will see more of it in their feeds — and for those who do not, this percentage might be lower,” the spokesperson said. The 5% number refers only to news content inside the average person’s News Feed, not news content on the platform overall. Facebook declined to share the percentage of news posts in relation to all posts on the platform.
The methodology Facebook used to determine the 5% number is less than clear. That percentage is “a best estimate based on several methodologies that show the same result,” the spokesperson told BuzzFeed News. “One of the methods incorporates news publishers identified by ComScore, and we also use our own classifiers and self-reporting on Pages.” The company declined to share further information on its news “classifiers.”
The analysis does include all link posts to news stories, so news links shared by friends and family, and by publisher pages, are all included in the 5% number. Instant Articles are also included, as is lifestyle content from news companies. Content from celebrities, sports teams, and bands is not.
Facebook did not explain its rationale for excluding native media company content from its calculus, a move that, for example, means nearly every post from Now This News — followed by 13 million people on Facebook — and many posts from AJ+ — followed by 10 million people — didn’t factor as news in its analysis.
Facebook is asking the public to trust it as it makes these changes. But the company also has a history of metrics errors that have involved everything from miscalculating average video watch time to overestimating time spent reading Instant Articles.
Here’s are the questions BuzzFeed News put to Facebook and the company’s responses:
How did Facebook determine this number?
Context: For the average Facebook user, links from news publishers comprise less than 5% of content seen in News Feed. After the ranking changes to prioritize interactions between friends and family, we expect news to make up roughly 4% of content seen in News Feed.
This is a global average, based on posts with links to news publishers.
This is a best estimate based on several methodologies that show the same result. It does not encompass everything that may be considered news.
Every person’s News Feed is different, so this percentage can vary for individuals. People who follow news organizations or engage with news stories will see more of it in their feeds — and for those who do not, this percentage might be lower.
Does Facebook have a running count of the percentage of News Feed content news accounts for, or was this a one-off study?
This is based on recent research and we'll continue to monitor this data over time.
How did Facebook decide what a news post is for those counted in the number?
We use several methodologies that result in roughly the same numbers. One of the methods incorporates news publishers identified by ComScore, and we also use our own classifiers and self-reporting on Pages.
Does Facebook have a master list of news sites whose links shared in the News Feed add up to that 5%?
No, the lists are dynamic.
Does the 5% number include links to news stories shared by friends? Or is content from pages only?
The 5% estimate does include links to news stories shared by friends, not just Pages. Instant Articles are also included.
Does it include video from news publishers in News Feed?
In general, native content from news publishers without external links — like video — are not counted. However, adding this wouldn't significantly change the overall percentage of news content seen in News Feed.
Does it include lifestyle content from news publishers or media companies (for instance: NYT travel stories or Tastemade posts)?
It does include lifestyle content shared by a news publisher.
Can you share the rest of the breakdown?
While we expect the amount of news people see in News Feed to be less overall, we’re taking steps to shift the mix of that percentage in favor of high quality sources and ensure that the news people do see is trusted, informative, and local.
People can always decide which stories appear at the top of News Feed with our See First feature.
Alex Kantrowitz is a senior technology reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in San Francisco. He reports on social and communications.
Contact Alex Kantrowitz at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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