Following the events unfolding in Ferguson last night was surreal for a number of reasons. First and foremost, we do not expect to see police forces in the United States using tear gas to break up a peaceful protest or imprisoning journalists. We don’t expect to see American police killing a member of the community and then failing to provide an adequate explanation. (Unfortunately, Michael Brown is not the only person killed by police this week. We normally think of security forces killing innocent people and repressing any member of the community who demands an explanation as something that happens in the Middle East, not in the middle of the United States.
Outrage filled my Twitter feed last night, in a way that it had not over the past weekend. I follow a mixture of political journalists, academics and sports writers. It’s a clear sign that an event has crossed over from one group to the broader consciousness of people who follow current events when all three of these groups are tweeting about the same thing. All the eyes of my Twitter feed were on #Ferguson last night, and I was too. However, many of us who followed the story via Twitter were shocked to go on Facebook. No one else seemed to be posting about Ferguson! I can only speak to what I saw on my News Feed, but a lot of people have the same impression. We know that the number of tweets tagged with #Ferguson spiked last night.
However, we don’t know what Facebook users were doing as an aggregate group. Facebook keeps that information proprietary. All we know is that we did not personally see a large volume of Ferguson posts on our personal Facebook “News Feed,” even though we saw a large volume of tweets about Ferguson.
Why is it worrying that Ferguson didn’t spike on Facebook?
When I started writing this post, I was solely thinking of the question of why news about #Ferguson and last night’s protests would spread differently on Twitter as opposed to Facebook. However, I want to highlight an article Zeynep Tufecki posted on Medium earlier today. Tufecki reminds us that our ability to discuss the events in Ferguson and have some clue about what’s going on there is dependent on having considerable freedoms of net neutrality. Many of us focus on net neutrality as either direct censorship (as seen in other parts of the world) or the idea of having an Internet “fast lane” (which would end up discriminating against a wide swath of ideas and innovative startups who cannot buy their way in to the fast lane.) Tufecki argues the use of various algorithms to determine content is another layer separating users from a truly neutral internet experience:
Algorithmic filtering, as a layer, controls what you see on the Internet. Net neutrality (or lack thereof) will be yet another layer determining this. This will come on top of existing inequalities in attention, coverage and control.
Tufecki relies on a comparison between Twitter and Facebook to explain the concept of “algorithmic filtering” and why it could be particularly threatening in this case. Twitter does not filter individual posts. It provides them all, in chronological order. However, Twitter’s list of what’s “trending” rewards spikes, which would penalize #Ferguson as a trending hashtag. Tufecki points out how this was absurd given what people were tweeting about, but Twitter’s algorithms are not as concerning as Facebook:
“No Ferguson on Facebook last night. I scrolled. Refreshed.
This morning, though, my Facebook feed is also very heavily dominated by discussion of Ferguson. Many of those posts seem to have been written last night, but I didn’t see them then. Overnight, “edgerank” –or whatever Facebook’s filtering algorithm is called now — seems to have bubbled them up, probably as people engaged them more.
But I wonder: what if Ferguson had started to bubble, but there was no Twitter to catch on nationally? Would it ever make it through the algorithmic filtering on Facebook? Maybe, but with no transparency to the decisions, I cannot be sure.
Would Ferguson be buried in algorithmic censorship?”
Tufecki’s argument could be rejected by looking at our “News Feeds,” but it cannot be definitively “proven” by this method. If we see a large volume of posts on Ferguson, we can probably conclude that Facebook was not censoring them in some way. If we see a low volume of posts on Ferguson at a particular point in time, we cannot definitively say that some form of Facebook censorship is at play. We would be foolish to dismiss the possibility of Facebook censorship, given that Facebook routinely hides around 80 percent of what people post from our “News Feeds.”
Alternatively, if Facebook just wants to attract users and get them to stay engaged by liking or comments on posts, we would expect them to over-emphasize posts on a highly emotional issue like Ferguson. Emotional posts attract more participation. Remember how Facebook experimented on our News Feeds to test this theory? Regardless of whether Facebook looked to specifically alter the frequency at which posts on Ferguson would appear in users News Feeds, it seems foolish to rely on Facebook for sharing information about breaking news. Friends don’t let friends get all their news from an organization that hides 80 percent of posts. We should encourage people to try and rely on as few algorithms as possible when searching for news, particularly when none of us can fully explain how those algorithms work.
So why didn’t #Ferguson show up much on my Facebook feed last night?
As much as we should be concerned about Facebook – even if they don’t have any specific bad intentions here – Facebook’s algorithm may not be the best explanation for why we didn’t see many Facebook posts about Ferguson last night. I cross-posted most of my messages so they would appear on both Twitter and Facebook. I have relatively low overlap between by contacts on the two platforms. I know a lot of my friends who I would interact with face-to-face on a regular basis use Facebook but do not use Twitter. As we might expect, friends on Twitter (or Twitter and Facebook) re-tweeted me before friends on Facebook hit the like or comment button.
On the other hand, most of my cross-posted messages got one or two likes/comments on Facebook last night. This gives me some anecdotal evidence to reject the theory that Facebook was de-emphasizing #Ferguson. Instead, I noticed a different trend. People who interacted with my Facebook posts only did so briefly yesterday, but they were more active this morning. A number of other people who were silent about #Ferguson last night were posting links on Facebook today. While we can’t know for sure how much of a role Facebook’s algorithm played, there is a much simpler explanation for why #Ferguson spiked on Twitter before it showed up much on Facebook.
Twitter is the platform of choice for following breaking news, and the people who primarily use Facebook may also be opting out of following the news closely.
Opting out of following the news closely is easier with today’s media fragmentation, but it is hardly a new concept. Almost 60 years ago, Katz and Lazarsfeld found that most people heard about current events through friends, family and co-workers instead of directly consuming the news. People who watched the news closely and then spread it with others were dubbed “opinion leaders.” For most people, the way they learned about news went something like this:
My current research focuses on who might count as an “opinion leader” in a digital age. There are two primary traits that separate today’s opinion leadership from what Katz and Lazarsfeld found 60 years ago:
- Opinion leadership is often done through computer-mediated communication instead of face-to-face personal communication. If someone has vaguely heard a few things about Ferguson or “the black kid who got shot,” then looks at your social media posting and follows it a bit, then congratulations! You are acting like an opinion leader. Most of us have certain people who we know who tend to act as opinion leaders, particularly in a social media service like Facebook where many users do not focus on current events.
- Opinion leadership can be a full time position, independent of original news reporting. While sites like The Huffington Post, Buzzfeed, leading liberal and conservative blogs do a little original reporting, they could rely on copying other reporters for most of their content.
Once you realize that many people do not want to make the commitment to keep up with breaking news, it is no surprise that Facebook would be a bad place to search for people posting about #Ferguson. The people who want to follow these events closely are all on Twitter. In many ways, the more interesting question is when people do decide to copy political ideas and phrases, who do they decide to copy? Are they copying the New York Times? The Huffington Post? Other bloggers? At the risk of shameless self promotion, I am presenting two different works in progress as a part of the American Sociological Association’s Annual Meetings.
- Tomorrow (Friday) I am presenting at the Media Sociology Pre-Conference, discussing some of the largely self-created barriers that traditional media elites face when trying to spread political ideas, and why bloggers may prefer copying professional opinion leaders instead.
- On Monday, I will be presenting at the Computational Social Science and Studying Social Behavior panel during the ASA meetings, with what looks to be an outstanding panel. This talk will focus on how the diffusion of phrases specifically related to social identity (such as the prominence of race running throughout any discussion of #Ferguson) spread differently than phrases focused on other aspects of electoral politics or the military.