Facebook Knifes Its Own Analytics Tool to Hide Its Ben Shapiro Problem

Facebook Knifes Its Own Analytics Tool to Hide Its Ben Shapiro Problem
The Facebook page of right-wing commentator Ben Shapiro as seen on a screen in Washington, DC on July 14, 2021. (Photo: Tom McKay / Gizmodo)

Facebook gutted its data analytics tool, CrowdTangle, by reassigning dozens of its staff and sidelining its CEO after its data showed that incendiary screeds and misleading content from right-wing pages regularly outperform traditional news outlets on the News Feed, according to the New York Times.

CrowdTangle, a Facebook subsidiary, is one of the only ways to see into Facebook’s black box of metrics from outside the company. It offers data on how content performs on public Pages and Groups in terms of “engagement,” or how often a post is commented on, shared, liked, or receives a reaction emoji. This is some of the only transparency into the viral economy of Facebook that anyone without privileged access within the company gets.

CrowdTangle’s engagement data has shown for quite some time that links from ultra-right commentators like logic troll Ben Shapiro, former NRATV goon Dan Bongino, and bloviating Fox News host Sean Hannity, as well as far-right sites like Breitbart and Newsmax, regularly score in the top 10 each day. That reinforces the (indisputably correct but politically inconvenient) notion that Facebook has fostered the kind of toxic right-wing echo chamber that fuelled things like a vigilante shooting at a protest in Kenosha, Wisconsin, last year or the January 2021 Capitol riots.

Since last year, Times tech columnist Kevin Roose has maintained a Twitter account showing the 10 public posts that earned the most Facebook engagement as measured by CrowdTangle each day. In a Times column on Wednesday, Roose detailed that the account had become a source of consternation for Facebook executives arguing he was misrepresenting their site. A slew of other articles in the media, as well as academic and nonprofit researchers, were citing CrowdTangle data in a series of unflattering stories on just why Facebook was so deluged with right-wing content.

Facebook executives like News Feed head John Hegeman began pushing back, Roose wrote in the Times. Instead of “engagement,” they said, a better metric would be “reach,” the total number of times Facebook users saw a post. CEO Mark Zuckerberg also pushed back, telling Axios the idea that Facebook was a far-right garbage-content farm was “just wrong.”

Eventually, according to the Times, Facebook executives began considering that instead of making counter-arguments (or God forbid, doing anything to fix the problem) they could try to make it go away by sticking a knife in CrowdTangle’s back.

In response to a September 2020 article in the Economist that cited CrowdTangle data to argue Facebook’s News Feeds skewed partisan, and to Fox News and its more extreme cousin Breitbart in particular, according to the Times, the vice president of global communications, John Pinette, emailed other execs with the subject line, “The trouble with CrowdTangle.” Nick Clegg, the company’s vice president of global affairs, replied to the thread stating, “our own tools are helping journos to consolidate the wrong narrative.” Vice President of Choice and Competition David Ginsberg reportedly wrote that if Donald Trump won re-election in 2020, “the media and our critics will quickly point to this ‘echo chamber’ as a prime driver of the outcome.” Facebook app chief Fidji Simo replied that “I really worry that this could be one of the worst narratives for us,” the Times reports.

When some of the executives reportedly argued for releasing the reach data preferred by Facebook, CrowdTangle co-founder and CEO Brandon Silverman replied there was just one problem. CrowdTangle engineers had already tested a reach data analysis tool and discovered that data also showed the same type of crap rising to the top, making it not “a total win from a comms point of view.”

According to Times, Facebook’s chief marketing officer and vice president of analytics, Alex Schultz, was the most critical, saying that there was no option to “avoid stories like this” but to switch from CrowdTangle to Facebook-curated reports. He reportedly wrote that “If we go down the route of just offering more self-service data you will get different, exciting, negative stories in my opinion.”

A Facebook spokesperson, Joe Osborne, told the Times that the executives weren’t talking about taking CrowdTangle to a big farm upstate but instead simply discussing how to correct the record on how the media was interpreting the data.

Yet Facebook’s vice president in charge of partnerships strategy, Brian Boland, told the paper that around the time of the 2020 elections, Facebook execs were clearly turning against CrowdTangle due to its role in unfavourable coverage. Boland, an advocate of greater transparency whose portfolio had included CrowdTangle, said he left Facebook in November 2020 because “the most senior leadership in the company does not want to invest in understanding the impact of its core products” and “doesn’t want to make the data available for others to do the hard work and hold them accountable.”

By April 2021, Silverman, the CrowdTangle chief, told employees that dozens of them would be reassigned to Facebook’s integrity division, the Times reports. Silverman reportedly added he would no longer be involved in managing CrowdTangle on a daily basis. The Times reported that sources said he has since been taking leave and is in the position of no longer having a clearly defined job.

CrowdTangle is still available despite its reportedly ravaged staff, and two people involved with the company’s plans told the Times that they don’t believe Facebook is planning to take it down anytime soon.

“CrowdTangle is part of a growing suite of transparency resources we’ve made available for people, including academics and journalists,” Osborne told the Times. “With CrowdTangle moving into our integrity team, we’re developing a more comprehensive strategy for how we build on some of these transparency efforts moving forward.”

“People were enthusiastic about the transparency CrowdTangle provided until it became a problem and created press cycles Facebook didn’t like,” Boland told the Times. “Then, the tone at the executive level changed.”