Facebook says political content only makes up 6% of what users actually see

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As the dust settles from the recent US Presidential elections (we hope), Facebook has offered up some insight into what users on the platform actually saw during the week leading up to election day. The platform argues that political content, which has proved a divisive issue in recent years, only made up 6 percent of what people saw.

Alex Schultz, VP of Analytics and chief marketing officer, at the company wrote a lengthly blog post diving into the data from 23rd to 29th October, trying to dispel misconceptions as to what people engage with on Facebook.

“There has been a lot of interest in Facebook’s impact on civic discourse and reasonable requests for us to share more data so it can be studied more fully,” he writes.

To provide said data, Schultz and his team leveraged a Facebook-owned analytics tool called CrowdTangle.

“This tool was built to help people get some idea of what content will get likes, comments and reshares. But it is not designed to show what is being seen the most,” he notes.

So what did CrowdTangle unearth? According to Schultz, it’s that political content is not seen by Facebook users as much as people may think.

On this front, he uses “Reach” as a metric, which raises a few questions on our end. Namely as the mechanisms behind how Reach works on Facebook have never fully been disclosed to the public, so it is not entirely clear as to how the algorithms that govern it, would impact numbers in the week before election day.

Nevertheless, Schultz’ data below shows that The Dodo (a page dedicated to cute animals) saw the most Reach in the week, with Donald J. Trump coming in sixth.

The second table provided paints a slightly different picture, showing that Trump had the highest engagement, followed by Fox News, which was covering the elections heavily.

As such, it becomes difficult to understand which of the two metrics is a better reflection of what people see, especially as we know precisely what engagement entails, but are still in the dark as to what Reach means.

Facebook, however, believes that Reach is the more accurate of the two metrics.

“Most of the content people see there, even in an election season, is not about politics. In fact, based on our analysis, political content makes up about 6% of what you see on Facebook. This includes posts from friends or from Pages (which are public profiles created by businesses, brands, celebrities, media outlets, causes and the like),” he asserts.

While this latest data does make for interesting reading, it still only touches the surface as what impact social media can have on real world events, which is something that Facebook has been criticised for having an influence on in the past.

Hopefully though, more analysis is on the way, as Schultz explains.

“Following Cambridge Analytica, it is clear how careful we need to be about partnering with researchers and giving them access to data. It is also clear that following the last presidential election we need to have independent research to understand our role in elections,” he correctly acknowledges.

“This partnership through FORT (Facebook Open Research and Transparency) is a step in that direction and (although nothing is perfect) one I am really proud of. I hope it can serve as a base from which we can build for the future, to thread the needle on the needs of privacy and research,” Schultz concludes.

Robin-Leigh Chetty

Robin-Leigh Chetty

When he's not reviewing the latest smartphones, Robin-Leigh is writing about everything tech-related from IoT and smart cities, to 5G and cloud computing. He's also a keen photographer and dabbles in console games.