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Facebook’s algorithm change had an impact on politicians, but not the ones you think

Conservatives claim that Facebook’s algorithm changes have censored their content. The data says something different.

Facebook’s algorithm change had an impact on politicians, but not the ones you think
[Photos: U.S. Army Sgt. James K. McCann (Warren); Flickr user Michael Vadon (Sanders); Arno Mikkor (EU2017EE) (May); U.S. Army Sgt. James K. McCann (Trump); Flickr user Gage Skidmore (Farage); winvic/Istock (illustration)]

There’ve been plenty of dramatic headlines and hand-wringing in recent months about the impact of Facebook’s latest changes to its News Feed algorithm—both in the media and politics. After all, entire media companies have gone kaput, thanks to opaque tweaks by the Facebook overlords in the past. But when it comes to politicians, the impact is less clear.

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Last month, conservative lawmakers grilled CEO Mark Zuckerberg during congressional hearings about whether or not Facebook has censored certain right-leaning posts. But they had little data to point to—beyond Trump supporting duo Diamond and Silk’s claim that Facebook intentionally lowered their reach. But beyond this one example, have Facebook’s changes impacted content from certain political persuasions? According to recent data, not really.

NewsWhip analyzed the engagement of some of the biggest political players on Facebook–in both the U.S. and beyond–to see what has changed over time. In Britain, pro-Brexit politician Nigel Farage claimed that Facebook has been censoring his posts. The numbers, however, indicate that though he did see an engagement downturn between December and February, it jumped back up, and he seems to be doing overall much better than Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn and Conservative Prime Minister Theresa May.

[Image: NewsWhip]
It gets even more interesting when you look at U.S. politics. Many conservatives have claimed that Facebook has been censoring their content since the 2016 election. But when you look at the engagement of Donald Trump compared to liberal icons and senators Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), that assertion seems unlikely.

Since May 2017, engagement for both Sanders and Warren went down month-over-month. Meanwhile, Trump saw a relative rise until October when things turned bumpy. Overall, it seems that Trump’s Facebook presence has remained quite strong, especially compared to Warren, who saw a huge plummet in Facebook engagement that’s yet to pick up.

[Image: NewsWhip]
As NewsWhip notes, these changes cannot only be attributed to the algorithm change implemented late last year. The blog post writes:

There has been a clear downward trend in average engagements per post since May of last year, with Bernie Sanders’s average engagements by month nearly quartering in size, and Elizabeth Warren’s dropping by a factor of eight or nine since May of last year. This has been a lengthy drop too, not just something that had occurred since the algorithm change in January.

Overall, the claim that Facebook has been censoring certain political content via the recent News Feed changes doesn’t seem to hold up. When asked for comment, a Facebook spokesperson said: “Facebook is a platform for all ideas. We don’t suppress content on the basis of political viewpoint because it would be contrary to our mission and not good for our business.” The company wouldn’t speak on the record about the engagement dip. Still, the changes to the News Feed, which prioritize posts from friends, mean public pages are likely going to continue to see a decline–sources familiar with the matter have confirmed this to me.

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The NewsWhip data indicates that political content as a whole may have taken a hit, and definitely not just on one end of the political spectrum. Not only that, but this has been going on for longer than just a few months. “Average engagements have declined generally for politicians across the board, especially for U.S. politicians with high name recognition such as Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren,” NewsWhip writes.

So maybe that grand Facebook anti-conservative conspiracy is not quite what it seems. At least for now.

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About the author

Cale is a Brooklyn-based reporter. He writes about business, technology, leadership, and anything else that piques his interest

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