The Wall Street Journal today published a big story about the inner workings of Facebook’s approach to political news coverage on its site. It includes this bit:
In late 2017, when Facebook tweaked its newsfeed algorithm to minimize the presence of political news, policy executives were concerned about the outsize impact of the changes on the right, including the Daily Wire, people familiar with the matter said. Engineers redesigned their intended changes so that left-leaning sites like Mother Jones were affected more than previously planned, the people said. Mr. Zuckerberg approved the plans. “We did not make changes with the intent of impacting individual publishers,” a Facebook spokesman said.
To say this is frustrating is an understatement, both for us as an organization and for me personally. I joined Mother Jones in 2013 to lead our social media efforts and was the architect of our Facebook strategy. It was incredibly successful; we saw our readership skyrocket and our social team grow. With expanded resources, we’ve been able to invest in other platforms and mediums, but Facebook was the beachhead and our work on the platform was considered a big win for us, to reach more people, and achieve this magazine’s ultimate goal: having an impact.
In late 2017 and early 2018, I had multiple meetings with Facebook executives about algorithmic changes. They were making adjustments, they said, and all publishers should expect traffic and engagement to go down a bit, but not in a way that favored or disfavored any single publication or class of publisher (unless that organization engaged in various bad behaviors).
Here is a line I wrote in an internal memo describing one of the meetings: “In general, I don’t think this is the nuclear bomb everyone sort of assumed a few weeks ago.”
Well, I was very wrong. Our reach plummeted. You can read about some of the real consequences of this in a column my bosses, Monika Bauerlein and Clara Jeffery, wrote last year.
“What did these changes in algorithm mean to Mother Jones?” Clara tweeted today. “Something like $400,000 to $600,000 a year. That’s big for a news org our size.”
Working in social media is a weird job. I am amazingly lucky to get to work with three of the best and most thoughtful and creative social media editors on earth, Jackie Mogensen, Inae Oh, and Sam Van Pykeren. One thing that makes them good is that they really care. They want people to read the stories. They want to make a difference. A lot of times, it doesn’t work and that’s just life, but when it doesn’t work ever, it is very frustrating, because you feel like you’ve let down not only your audience but your colleagues. It’s difficult and disheartening to keep running into walls, and to learn that the walls were placed there intentionally, so my colleagues and I would be stopped as we tried to promote our magazine’s work, makes me livid.
I reached out to Facebook for comment this afternoon and was told the same thing they told the Wall Street Journal:
“We did not make changes with the intent of impacting individual publishers. We only made updates after they were reviewed by many different teams across many disciplines to ensure the rationale was clear and consistent and could be explained to all publishers.”
I have no secret information about the Journal story and its reporting. I don’t know who they spoke to, but it’s a pretty good newspaper with wonderful journalists and they wouldn’t publish this without having confidence in it—and perhaps the most telling fact check here is what happened: Ben Shapiro and conservative sites did indeed win from those algorithmic changes, and Mother Jones and progressive sites did indeed lose.
Internally at Mother Jones I have always been Facebook’s biggest advocate and have always given it the benefit of the doubt, because the people I’ve personally worked with and known there are unfailingly nice and decent people, but I’ve never met their bosses. I recognize mistakes they’ve made, but whereas many people attribute them to malevolence, I’ve always thought it more likely folly.
Here’s another line from that memo I wrote: “It seems like they really aren’t sure what it will mean.”
Maybe that was true. Maybe the Journal report is wrong. Maybe it’s just a coincidence that the top posts on the site are now all from conservative publishers. “What men dare do! What men may do! What men daily do, not knowing what they do.” But maybe not.
Maybe it doesn’t matter anyway. Maybe what matters is the results.
So, help me, won’t you? Every day on Facebook conservatives dominate the most shared stories. Let’s change that, even if for only one day.
Please share this post and please share Monika and Clara’s article from 2019, aptly titled “How Facebook Screwed Us All.”