The Rise of the Facebook Truthers

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Feb. 11 2014 6:51 PM

The Rise of the Facebook Truthers

Journalists will believe anything about the social network, as long as it’s totally outlandish.

Facebook Truth Now
There's a collective willingness to believe Facebook is up to no good.

Photo by Manjunath Kiran/AFP/Getty Images

Something about Facebook makes journalists lose their minds. How else to explain the seemingly unending procession of stories based on wild speculation and implausible conspiracy theories? 

Will Oremus Will Oremus

Will Oremus is Slate's senior technology writer.

This young week has already brought two separate sets of bizarre allegations about the social network’s business practices. Both have largely been taken at face value by commentators on Twitter, Hacker News, and elsewhere, despite making very little sense.

The more outlandish of the two comes from Business Insider’s Nicholas Carlson, a writer who seems fully capable of sound reasoning when the subject is a company other than Facebook.

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In a post Monday about an apparent decline in traffic to Upworthy, the politically progressive viral-content site, Carlson hypothesized that recent changes to Facebook’s news feed algorithm were to blame. Those changes, which Facebook explained in a November blog post, were meant to favor content that users actually enjoyed over viral memes and other types of posts that, however widely shared, are also widely disliked in Facebook user-satisfaction surveys. 

Based on my own reporting, I think it’s unlikely that those news feed changes are responsible for Upworthy’s apparent dip in Facebook traffic—if the dip is even real. Upworthy chief executive Eli Pariser told me his site’s metrics can fluctuate from month to month, so an apparent decline in December and January might be more accurately viewed as a regression from a one-time spike in November.

In any case, Pariser went on, Upworthy has actually changed its own priorities in recent months. Rather than focus on page views and Facebook shares as its main metrics for a story’s success, the site has begun measuring the amount of time readers spend reading or commenting on a given story once they’ve clicked on it. Accordingly, Upworthy has been tightening its focus on stories that it sees as relevant to its political and social mission. Presumably, that comes at the expense of posts that go viral on Facebook simply because they’re feel-good human-interest stories. “If that means that in the short run we do a few less page views or a few less uniques, we’re totally happy to take that trade, because we’re optimizing for user satisfaction in the long run,” Pariser told me.

Besides, he pointed out, the same metrics that showed a big dip in Upworthy’s Facebook shares showed a sustained rise in Facebook interactions for ViralNova, a viral-content site that shares Upworthy’s affinity for click-bait headlines but not its social mission. That would seem to undermine the Facebook-is-punishing-Upworthy argument, Pariser noted. “We don’t have any reason to believe Facebook’s trying to optimize for ViralNova, right?”

So Carlson’s main hypothesis is probably off-base—but that’s not even the biggest problem with his post. The jaw-dropping part comes at the end, where he tries to explain why BuzzFeed’s traffic has apparently been surging while Upworthy and others have suffered:

It could be that BuzzFeed, unlike all those other sites, buys traffic from Facebook. BuzzFeed's business model is to create advertorials on BuzzFeed.com and then get traffic to these advertorials by buying Facebook ads. If that's the reason, then the message Facebook is sending isn't so much that it wants “high quality” content for its News Feed. It’s that if you are a media company, and you depend on Facebook for your traffic, you better make sure Facebook is benefiting from your existence.

This is an explosive claim. To be clear, there’s nothing wrong with “buying traffic” in the form of paying for advertisements on Facebook. But the algorithms that govern Facebook’s news feed are supposed to be independent of its advertising products.  Carlson seems to be insinuating that Facebook rigged its news feed to punish news outlets that don’t advertise on Facebook and favor those that do. This is akin to accusing Google of rigging its organic search results to punish companies that don’t advertise with Google. For that matter, it’s akin to alleging that Business Insider rigs its news stories to provide favorable coverage to companies that advertise on Business Insider and unfavorable coverage to those that don’t.

That’s a pretty serious charge—which Carlson must have realized at some point, because he went back and quietly changed the article after BuzzFeed complained. Now it concludes by speculating that BuzzFeed has done well on Facebook lately because of its great content.