Facebook Without Trump

Even lacking an account, stories about him get much more engagement than the Biden agenda

In the aftermath of the Capitol insurrection on Jan. 6, Facebook indefinitely suspended Donald Trump from his page, which has approximately 32 million likes. This past week, the Facebook Oversight Board, a kind of Supreme Court for the platform, received his appeal arguing he should be allowed back on Facebook and Instagram.

Facebook's Oversight Board will reach a decision sometime during the next few months.

Prior to having his account frozen, he got hundreds of thousands of interactions (likes, dislikes, shares, comments, and other reactions) on Facebook. I was curious to know what politics looked like on the platform without Trump's posts.

I used CrowdTangle, an analytics tool developed by Facebook, to look at what was gaining traction on the website. Over four mornings during last week, which was relatively slow for news, I looked at which politics posts were getting the most interactions over the past 24 hours. (I used the U.S. Politics 2020 feed.) That is, they were getting liked, disliked, or eliciting some emotional reaction that caused a user to click a reaction button in the news feed. Users who have engaged with stories from a page are more likely to see future stories from that page, because Facebook's algorithm prioritizes past engagement.

Despite his much lower public profile and absence of posting, the most interacted posts were dominated by conservative voices, and there was a fair amount of news featuring Trump. Even without an account, stories about him or grievances he seized on, like alleged media bias, got lots of engagement — more than news about the Biden Administration.

Last Tuesday and Thursday, right-wing sources accounted for eight of the top ten posts with the most total interactions. On Friday, it was nine out of ten. Donald Trump Jr., Ben Shapiro, and Dan Bongino all had appearances in the most interacted posts, sometimes having multiple posts each day. Fox News stories about Trump also had lots of interactions. A Fox News story about conservative nonprofit Citizens United defending the policies of the Trump Administration had over 120,000 interactions Friday, for instance. (On Monday morning, after his speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference, all of the top ten most interacted posts were about his address.)

(These were the top three posts with the most interactions of the past 24 hours on the morning of February 26.)

The right is better than the left at hitting emotional buttons. On the left, Robert Reich and Occupy Democrats barely broke into the top rankings. Almost completely absent were mainstream news publishers, which generally aren't trying to elicit emotional reactions to their stories. The exceptions were a post by ABC News about President Joe Biden letting his dogs into the Oval Office and a CNN story about Trump's tax returns.

In looking at the posts with the most interactions, major stories about the Biden Administration were absent, like the COVID-19 stimulus, the push to increase the minimum wage, or the state of play of various appointments to the cabinet.

The analytics firm NewsWhip looked at the publishers with the most engagements on Facebook in the month of January, only looking at Facebook posts with linked articles, not videos or posts without a link to a separate page. Ben Shapiro's conservative aggregator Dailywire.com topped the list with 76 million engagements, followed by cnn.com with 71 million engagements, nbcnews.com with 59 million engagements, and foxnews.com with 58 million engagements.

How to measure what goes viral on Facebook has been a source of controversy. Last August, New York Times tech columnist Kevin Roose wrote an influential article detailing how the most interacted posts were dominated by the right. He has been tracking the most interacted posts on Twitter each day using CrowdTangle data. 

Facebook did not challenge the accuracy of his data, but argued that it did not create a full picture of what most users saw on the website. It said that the news feed was more balanced based on their data from only one week after an October presidential debate showing that mainstream news publishers had a wider reach than engagements showed. They also said that a small percentage of users saw these top-ten link posts. 

No methodology is going to offer a complete picture. Someone seeing a post from a news publisher may merely scroll past it. Facebook has argued that engagement is not the same as reach. All of these measures are only snapshots of what is gaining currency on a very large platform.

Facebook announced earlier this month that it was testing reducing political content in news feeds. If Trump comes back to the platform, it's unclear how that would affect him. But even from beyond the platform, Trump's divisive style of politics drives engagement on it. 

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