Facebook reportedly tweaked its algorithm but it failed to decrease engagement on ideologically aligned pages
After the election, the platform had reportedly decided to elevate established news outlets and reduce visibility of right and left-leaning pages. It didn't work.
In the days following the election, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg reportedly authorized a change to Facebook’s algorithm to increase visibility of so-called “mainstream publishers” and reduce visibility of ideologically aligned pages. Yet right-leaning pages maintained their typical engagement levels in the 20 days after the election and continued to earn more interactions than left-leaning or nonaligned pages, according to a Media Matters analysis.
An article from The New York Times reveals that Facebook employees warned Zuckerberg in the days after the election that election-related misinformation was going viral on the platform and proposed a change to the news feed algorithm. (Media Matters and others reported extensively on election misinformation plaguing Facebook before, during, and after the election.)
In response, the employees proposed an emergency change to the site’s news feed algorithm, which helps determine what more than two billion people see every day. It involved emphasizing the importance of what Facebook calls “news ecosystem quality” scores, or N.E.Q., a secret internal ranking it assigns to news publishers based on signals about the quality of their journalism.
Typically, N.E.Q. scores play a minor role in determining what appears on users’ feeds. But several days after the election, Mr. Zuckerberg agreed to increase the weight that Facebook’s algorithm gave to N.E.Q. scores to make sure authoritative news appeared more prominently, said three people with knowledge of the decision, who were not authorized to discuss internal deliberations.
The change was part of the “break glass” plans Facebook had spent months developing for the aftermath of a contested election. It resulted in a spike in visibility for big, mainstream publishers like CNN, The New York Times and NPR, while posts from highly engaged hyperpartisan pages, such as Breitbart and Occupy Democrats, became less visible, the employees said.
Media Matters analyzed CrowdTangle data on posts from political Facebook pages in the 20 days before and after the election and found that engagement on right-leaning, nonaligned, and left-leaning pages did not change substantially despite reported changes in visibility.
During the 20 days prior to the election, right-leaning pages earned over 575.9 million interactions -- or 28.8 million average daily interactions -- which is more than the combined average daily interactions of nonaligned and left-leaning pages. During the 20 days after the election, right-leaning pages earned over 541.5 million interactions, which is roughly 1.7 million interactions -- or 6% -- fewer each day.
Left-leaning and nonaligned pages both earned roughly 250 million interactions in the 20 days before the election and roughly 280 million interactions in the 20 days after. Each day, nonaligned pages earned roughly 1.8 million -- or 15% -- more interactions than before the election, and left-leaning pages earned over 1.9 million -- or 16% -- more.
In fact, right-leaning pages consistently earned more interactions than left-leaning or nonaligned pages between October 14 and November 23, with the exception of November 7, which was the day that media outlets projected former Vice President Biden as president-elect.
The New York Times specifically noted that algorithm changes “resulted in a spike in visibility for big mainstream publishers like CNN, The New York Times and NPR, while posts from highly engaged hyperpartisan pages, such as Breitbart and Occupy Democrats, became less visible.” Media Matters analyzed CrowdTangle data for Breitbert, CNN, and Occupy Democrats and found that although there were some changes to the total daily interactions for these outlets after the election, these changes were not sustained, with CNN getting a substantial boost in engagement only on November 7.
In the 20 days prior to the election, right-leaning Breitbart and left-leaning Occupy Democrats earned 2 to 3 times more interactions than nonaligned CNN, with Breitbart earning 28.0 million interactions, Occupy Democrats earning 39.5 million interactions, and CNN earning 12.6 million interactions. Breitbart and Occupy Democrats continued to earn more interactions than CNN in the 20 days after the election, but CNN’s engagement increased substantially in part because the outlet earned nearly 5 million interactions on November 7 alone.
Excluding November 7, CNN’s engagement after the election increased roughly 30% compared to the 20 days prior to the election, while Breitbart’s engagement decreased 13% and Occupy Democrats decreased 30%. Notably, when accounting for post frequency, average daily interactions per post for Breitbart and Occupy Democrats actually increased by 9%.
Facebook has attempted to downplay the amount of engagement political content on the platform gets amid criticism over its handling of COVID-19 and election misinformation. But the site’s reported efforts to reduce visibility of ideologically aligned pages did little to reduce engagement on right-leaning pages after the election, even as they spread election misinformation.
Using CrowdTangle, Media Matters compiled a list of 1,773 Facebook pages that frequently posted about U.S. politics from January 1, 2020, to August 25, 2020.
For an explanation of how we compiled pages and identified them as right-leaning, left-leaning, or ideologically nonaligned, see the methodology here.
The resulting list consisted of 771 right-leaning pages, 497 ideologically nonaligned pages, and 505 left-leaning pages.
Using CrowdTangle, Media Matters compiled all posts by pages on this list posted between October 14, 2020, and November 23, 2020, and reviewed data for these posts, including total interactions -- reactions, comments, and shares.