Facebook has spent the last six months trying to turn its fake-news-loving algorithm into something more manageable — or at least less publicly embarrassing — with varying degrees of success. Its attempt to curb engagement-bait and penalize publishers that relied on polarizing content for clicks worked reasonably well, an Outline investigation found. From January to April of 2018, overall interactions for publishers of traditionally inflammatory and fake news dropped, while figures for mainstream outlets remained more or less unaffected.
However, in tanking traffic for right-wing outrage factories like Breitbart and Gateway Pundit, Facebook appears to have succeeded in giving Fox News even more influence. While most large digital publishers have done fine in the wake of Facebook’s January 12 news feed change, Fox News’ total interactions have soared, increasing at a significantly higher rate than any other comparably sized outlet, according to data The Outline obtained using Facebook’s analytics tool Crowdtangle. Crowdtangle derives overall interaction tallies from how many likes, shares, and comments a particular post receives, and determines interaction rates based on the average number of interactions per post.
Over the course of six months, Fox News’ total interactions increased by nearly 48 percent, from approximately 23 million interactions a month to 34 million, while nearly every other similarly sized publisher struggled to maintain their average:
Curiously enough, Fox News achieved these staggering gains without a comparably significant increase in its interaction rate or average post count. Meaning, either a large swath of its audience spontaneously decided to interact with its content more, or its posts were purposefully prioritized in the news feed. Though its overall interactions increased by nearly 48 percent, its interaction rate (i.e., average interactions per post) hovered between .10 percent and .13 percent during the given period. This figure pales in comparison to the interaction rates of pages like Breitbart, which reach into the 30s:
Despite these generally high interaction rates, Breitbart and its ilk appear to have been ultimately deprioritized in users news feeds, as its overall number interaction total lowered as time went on. Where pages like Breitbart lost interactions, Fox gained interactions, with its final weekly tallies eventually spiking over 8 million.
Of course, from Facebook’s perspective, these are the signs of a system working perfectly. Funneling traffic away from sites like Breitbart and toward mainstream publishers is what the company set out to do in the first place. The quality of content on the average user’s feed is elevated, and the most egregious fake news goes relatively unseen. Killing off all of the competition for the one news outlet that’s been leading the ‘Facebook hates conservatives’ charge is just a consolation prize.
Facebook has been trying to prove that it isn’t actively suppressing conservative news since Gizmodo’s 2016 report on possible bias in the Trending Stories curation process. The company has met with congressional committees and issued statement after statement denying any and all evidence of partisan bias, none of which really helped soothe the white hot rage of conservative pundits. Their outrage reached a fever pitch again recently, fueled by the (totally bunk) claims of censorship by Trumpian social media stars Diamond and Silk. Embarrassingly enough, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg was asked again and again about the pair during his high-profile shaming at Capitol Hill in April. Despite the fact that Facebook has denied any claims of active suppression, and that no data supports it, the company has been consistently courting conservatives as of late. It’s held private meetings with party leaders, partnered with Fox to develop a news program for Facebook Watch, and even ordered an audit of its own platform for “alleged liberal bias” led by Arizona Republican Sen. Jon Kyl, despite the fact that it still maintains that none exists.