Facebook released a report (.pdf) on its most viewed posts in the first quarter of 2021 on Saturday evening, which it had initially put aside because it gave the company a bad image.
As first reported by the New York Times, who obtained a copy of the first quarter report before Facebook published it, the most viewed link on Facebook between January and March of this year was a since-updated article that suggested the death of a Florida doctor could be linked to the COVID-19 vaccine.
Andy Stone, Facebook Policy Communications Manager tweeted on Saturday that the criticisms Facebook received for not posting the report “weren’t unfair,” but tried to understand the intricacies of how it handled this most viewed link:
“The media wrote about the South Florida doctor who died. When the coroner published a cause of death, the Chicago Tribune added an update to its original story; NYTimes didn’t. Would it have been fair to delete the story from The Times because it was COVID disinformation? Pierre tweeted. “Of course not. Nobody suggests it and neither am I. But it illustrates how difficult it is to define disinformation.
Stone said Facebook withheld the January-March report “because there were key system fixes we wanted to make.” He didn’t say what those fixes were, but tweeted a link to the Q1 report.
On the question of the unpublished report earlier this year and why we held it. We ended up keeping it because there were key fixes to the system that we wanted to make.
– Andy Stone (@andymstone) August 21, 2021
What Facebook posted on August 18 was a report showing the most viewed content in its public news feed from April through June, its second quarter. It offers a rosier image of the company; the most viewed post in Q2 was a word puzzle that asked users to choose the first three words they saw. The second most viewed Facebook post between April and June asked users over 30 to post a photo of themselves if they looked young. The most viewed domains were YouTube, UNICEF, Spotify, and CBS News. Among the ten most viewed links on Facebook in the second quarter were a GIF of kittens and a UNICEF response page to the COVID-19 crisis in India.
It is not at all clear why Facebook decided to release these popular content reports, but criticism of the platform’s handling of misleading information about COVID-19 has escalated in recent weeks. The Biden administration has urged Facebook and other social media platforms to do a better job of dealing with misleading or false information about COVID-19 vaccines on their sites.
Another possible motivation for Facebook’s new “transparency” reports is probably the work of New York Times technical columnist Kevin Roose who last year started using the Facebook-owned content analytics platform CrowdTangle to compile and publish daily lists top performing US Facebook pages, lists that frequently included pages dedicated to former President Trump, and right-wing pundits like Ben Shapiro and Dan Bongino. The lists have reportedly been a source of irritation for Facebook.
Facebook did not immediately respond to a request for comment Sunday morning. You can read the full Q1 Content Transparency Report below.