How Facebook plays content gatekeeper

On Aug. 6, USA Today’s sports website For the Win had the exclusive on a rap video created by the NFL’s royal family of star quarterbacks: Archie, Eli and Peyton Manning. Naturally, the YouTube video was almost instantly turned into a post by every sports and pop culture publication on the Web. But when it became a trending topic on Facebook, For the Win’s story wasn’t included on the page.

That prompted Jamie Mottram, USA Today’s director of content development, to call Facebook’s publisher outreach team. For the Win’s post was atop the topic page soon after, at which point Facebook referral traffic to the post approximately doubled, Mottram said.

It’s one of the few ways For the Win has had success driving referral traffic from Facebook’s trending topics, a feature that, despite becoming a mainstay on Facebook, remains an afterthought for some self-styled “viral publishers.” It also points out the tremendous power Facebook now exerts over publishers. While much of the attention is focused on Facebook’s news feed algorithm, comparatively little is shown to trending topics, a human-influenced feature Facebook began testing last August and formally introduced this January.

The topics are displayed in a module in the upper right-hand corner of users’ news feeds on desktop, and, not unlike Twitter, clicking on a topic sends Facebook users to a separate Facebook page filled with posts or links to articles about the given topic.


For the Win has looked to take advantage of trending topics in recent months, albeit with mixed results. Having a post featured on a trending topics page can deliver tens, even hundreds of thousands of referral visits, Mottram said. Other times, the number of referrals has been negligible, he added.

Part of what makes the amount of referral traffic unpredictable is that trending topics are personalized to each user’s taste. If the topic is niche, the referral traffic will likely reflect that, Mottram said. But if a story is atop a news topic relevant to a wide swath of Facebook users — like, say, Robin Williams’ death or the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge — it can expect a large number of Facebook referrals.

Personalization means being served a list of topics and stories relevant to your pre-existing interests, but as the gap between Ferguson and ice bucket-related stories on Facebook showed, it can result in de facto censorship.

It’s hardly a new issue: Google long held that Google News results, for instance, were purely based on machines, but it was discovered in 2004 that Google was manually censoring results served to users in China.

Facebook’s trending topics are generated algorithmically, but Facebook can influence what stories are featured on a topic page. A Facebook employee might add an “Emmys” tag to a story about “Bryan Cranston” and “red carpet” to have it featured on a topic page for the Emmys.

“I have no idea how big that team is or who’s on it,” Mottram said. Facebook did not specify how it chooses which stories to feature. But posts from verified pages — ones adorned with a blue check mark — appear higher on a topic page, Facebook said.

The human element further complicates issues regarding what Facebook deems newsworthy: Without being entirely transparent about who is tagging stories and how, questions will linger about whether certain stories are receiving preferential treatment and why.

Right now, there’s no doubt that Facebook plays a powerful role in rewarding and penalizing publishers. Its recent move against click-bait caused tremors among some publishers who feared they might be swept up only because they publish shorter posts.

That said, as For the Win’s post about the Manning brothers shows, Facebook employees are attempting to reward the original source on a news topic.

“If there is a clear source for a story, Facebook does seem to try to link to that source material instead of whatever is aggregated,” Mottram said.

Surprisingly, several sites that rely on social referrals for a significant portion of referral traffic have not even bothered experimenting with the feature.

“We don’t chase already trending content,” Upworthy’s director of marketing Ed Urgola told Digiday. “We’re really trying to uncover the pre-viral content that is high quality and compelling but hasn’t been given a launchpad.”

Even viral wunderkind BuzzFeed is not experimenting with trending topics.

“Whenever people start to game Facebook, they turn the dials and close said loophole,” according to Bryan Goldberg, founder of women’s interest website Bustle. “I’m finding it easier not to even try in the first place.”

For the Win, however, has found it a worthwhile experiment, mainly because sports stories tend to quickly become trending topics on Facebook, Mottram said. And aligning with one of those trending topics can sometimes make for a home run.

Image via Shutterstock

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