News engagement under threat on Facebook?

Earlier this year, Mark Zuckerberg announced that the Facebook news feed would put more emphasis on social relations and less on news. This is the result of several controversies involving Facebook, especially the publication of fake news during the 2016 US elections. One of the concerns of news organizations is that changes to the algorithm may threaten their reach and the audience’s news engagement.

Having collected all posts by news organizations (n=356,188 from 59 Dutch news titles), I am able to analyze how much engagement these posts had and how this may have changed over time. I will look at the number of likes for each post over a 16 week period. We do not know exactly when the new algorithm will be in effect, but sometime after January 12, when Mark Zuckerberg posted the news on Facebook.
Instead of the mean number of likes for posts, I compare the median number of tweets for each week over the 16-week period. I prefer the median over the mean number of likes, because the distribution of likes is extremely skewed: a few posts receive extremely many likes and most of posts only receive a few likes (see for instance De Echo van Nederland). The median is a better measure for central tendency measure because it is incentive for these extremely popular posts. For now, I aggregated the data on a weekly basis to eliminate intra-weekly fluctuations (such as weekends versus weekdays).

Reviewing the first figure, we see that the weekly number of posts on Facebook is quite constant over the 16 week period.

in the second graph (below), the median number of likes fluctuates strongly. We particularly see a drop in week 9 in 2018. Could this be the result of the new news feed algorithm?

For a more detailed view, I prepared the same graph for different types of organization (below). Although all types of platforms have an online presence, they differ in terms of their origins. I distinguish newspapers, television, RTV (mostly radio stations and regional and local broadcasters) and online-only platforms. We see that newspapers publish the most posts, simply because there are many newspaper platforms. Radio, TV and online-only platforms roughly publish the same amount of posts.

Looking at the median number of likes for each type of platform, we see that TV posts on Facebook receive the most likes, while the other platforms receive considerably less likes for their posts. As for the variation across these 16 weeks, we see the strongest decrease in likes for TV news and current affairs programs. The online-only and RTV platforms also shows a slight decrease, while newspapers remain constant over time. Again, in week nine the number of likes declines. At the end of week 16 though, there seems to be some recovery as indicated by a slight increase likes. Whether this increase is persistent, time will tell.

In conclusion, if I were to make a guess when Facebook’s news feed algorithm changed, it would be week nine. Furthermore, it mostly affects news posts that are extremely popular, in this case posts by TV organizations and current affairs programs. Then again, there are many factors that affect the number of likes. So, this might be a continuing story….

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Maurice Vergeer

I am Maurice Vergeer, working at Communication Science department of the Radboud University Nijmegen, in the Netherlands.