In January, Facebook announced that it was changing its all-powerful algorithm to prioritize posts from friends and family in order to bolster engagement among users. Adam Mosseri, the head of Facebook’s News Feed, explained that this meant “we’ll show less public content, including videos and other posts from publishers or businesses.” The message was clear: News organizations should expect fewer people to find their work through Facebook.
The media industry collectively gasped when this happened. Many outlets had designed their output to game the previous version of the algorithm. And Facebook wasn’t bluffing; in February, as promised, reports began trickling out that the tech giant’s referral traffic to publishers was dropping—very precipitously for some publications.
But despite the seemingly universal nature of this shift, there’s one group that sees itself as unfairly targeted, as Politico’s Jason Schwartz noted today: conservatives. Many right-wing media figures have begun portraying Facebook’s algorithm change as yet another attack on their free speech rights by a new liberal bogeyman.
Tucker Carlson described it on Fox News last week as “ideological warfare.” Right-wing outlets including, Breitbart, The Blaze, and Gateway Pundit have framed the News Feed change as part of a plot against them. And the Daily Wire’s Ben Shapiro told Politico that “Facebook needs to be held to public account for its constant manipulation of what its users are seeing.”
No arguments on that last point. But there’s no evidence behind the insinuation that Facebook’s opaque processes for maximizing the profits of its invasive advertising business are meant to harm conservatives in particular.
Such arguments largely stem from a March 5 analysis by Paris Martineau in The Outline, which showed mainstream news sites—the “liberal media”—far outperforming the Breitbarts of the world:
[C]onservative and right-wing publishers (such as Breitbart, Fox News, and Gateway Pundit) were hit the hardest in the weeks following the announcement, with Facebook engagement totals for February dropping as much as 55 percent for some, while the engagement numbers of most predominantly liberal publishers remained unaffected.
Both liberal and conservative publishers of clickbait and highly polarizing content also experienced a significant drop in engagement following Facebook’s News Feed de-prioritization announcement.
The conservative critique of Facebook in recent weeks has almost entirely focused on the first paragraph. It conveniently ignores the second, which I’ll translate into plainer English: Bad publications are doing particularly poorly on Facebook. The outlets that are doing a better job adapting—The New York Times, CNN, and others—not only produce actual journalism, but also employ many smart people whose sole job is to find it an audience. Many publishers, including Gizmodo Media Group, are attempting to diversify the ways in which readers find their content.
Is this so shocking? Is it really a surprise that sites like Gateway Pundit, which traffics in sordid conspiracy theories, would be adversely affected by Facebook’s changes? How about The Daily Caller? Is it hard to believe that Facebook is de-prioritizing high-quality content like this?
Of course it’s not. These publishers managed to build ephemeral audiences by squirting out low-quality work that exploited Facebook’s strategic imperatives of the moment. It’s ironic, then, that that they are now implying they are victims of the tech giant and, in turn, a broader liberal conspiracy to silence them.
My message to these self-styled rugged individualists: It’s time to live by your own words and pull yourself up by your bootstraps. Media is a tough business, and Facebook won’t save you from it.