When Facebook released its first quarterly report this week on the most viewed posts in the United States, Guy Rosen, its vice president for integrity, said the social network had taken “a long journey” to be “by far the most transparent platform in the world” on the Internet “The list showed that the posts with the greatest reach were mostly harmless content like recipes and cute animals.
Facebook had a similar report for the first three months of the year, but executives never released it to the public as they feared it would look bad for the company, according to internal emails sent by executives and the The New York Times were notified.
In that report, a copy of which was made available to the Times, the most viewed link was a news article with a headline suggesting that the coronavirus vaccine was responsible for the death of a Florida doctor. The report also revealed that a Facebook page for The Epoch Times, an anti-China newspaper spreading right-wing conspiracy theories, was the platform’s 19th most popular page in the first three months of 2021.
The report was about to be released when some executives, including Alex Schultz, Facebook’s vice president of analytics and chief marketing officer, debated whether it would cause a public relations issue, according to internal emails. The company decided to postpone it.
“We considered getting the report out sooner,” said Andy Stone, a Facebook spokesman, “but knowing that it was going to attract attention just like this week, there were fixes to the system that we wanted to make . “
Facebook hasn’t said why it decided to run a popularity report, but it is facing increasing scrutiny of the data it shares with the government and the public, particularly due to misinformation about the virus and vaccines. Criticism escalated as cases of the delta variant of the coronavirus rose. The White House has urged the company to share more information about inaccurate and misleading information on the website and better stop it from being spread. Last month, President Biden accused the company of “killing people” by allowing false information to be spread widely, a statement that the White House later tempered. Other federal agencies have accused Facebook of withholding important data.
Facebook has backed out and publicly accused the White House of scapegoating the company for failing to meet its vaccination goals. Facebook executives, including its CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, said the platform has been aggressively removing Covid-19 misinformation since the beginning of the pandemic. The company said it removed over 18 million pieces of misinformation during that period.
But Brian Boland, a former vice president of product marketing for Facebook, said there are many reasons to be skeptical of data collected and published by a company that has a history of protecting its own interests.
“You can’t trust a report that has been curated by a company and is meant to combat press narrative rather than really meaningful transparency,” said Boland. “It’s up to regulators and government officials to give us that transparency.”
In this week’s report, which covered public content viewed on the Facebook news feed from April 1 to June 30, popular links included local news, a cat GIF, and a Green Bay Packers alumni website. Popular posts, seen by tens of millions of accounts, featured viral question-and-answer prompts and memes.
Most of the company’s draft reports, such as Facebook released on Wednesday, showed that the top 20 most-viewed links on Facebook in the United States led to non-political content such as recipe pages and stories about the United Nations Children’s Fund.
The rejected report also contained the article about the doctor’s death in Florida. The headline of the article by The South Florida Sun Sentinel and republished by The Chicago Tribune: “A ‘healthy’ doctor died two weeks after receiving a COVID-19 vaccine; CDC is investigating why. “
This link has been viewed by nearly 54 million Facebook accounts in the US. Many commentators on the post asked questions about the safety of the vaccines. Six of the top 20 sharers came from public Facebook pages that regularly post anti-vaccination content on Facebook, according to data from CrowdTangle, a Facebook social media analytics company. Other top dividers in the story included Filipino Facebook pages that support President Rodrigo Duterte, a pro-Israel Facebook group, and a page called “Just the Facts,” which claims to be “spreading the truth, even if the media.” don’t do it ”.
Months later, the coroner’s report said there wasn’t enough evidence to say whether the vaccine contributed to the doctor’s death. Far fewer people on Facebook saw this update.
The 19th most popular site on the social network in the previous report was The Epoch Times’ Trending World, a publication that promoted the QAnon conspiracy theory and spread misleading claims of electoral fraud ahead of the 2020 presidential election. The Epoch Times is banned from advertising on Facebook for repeated violations of the platform’s political advertising guidelines.
Trending World was viewed by 81.4 million accounts, according to the report, slightly less than the 18th most popular site, Fox News, which had 81.7 million viewers in the first three months of 2021.
Facebook’s transparency report, released on Wednesday, also revealed that an Epoch Times subscription link was among the most viewed in the US. With around 44.2 million accounts that saw the link in April, May and June, it was about half as popular as Trending World in the postponed report.
Sheera Frenkel contributed the reporting. Jacob Silver and Ben Decker contributed to the research.