Mar 19, 2024 - Business

Meta shuts down data tool widely used by journalists

Illustration of a small Meta logo under a magnifying glass surrounded by a larger, out of focus version

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Meta plans to officially shutter CrowdTangle, the analytics tool widely used by journalists and researchers to see what's going viral on Facebook and Instagram, the company's president of global affairs Nick Clegg told Axios in an interview.

Why it matters: The company plans to instead offer select researchers access to a set of new data tools, but news publishers, journalists or anyone with commercial interests will not be granted access to that data.

The big picture: The effort comes amid a broader pivot from Meta away from news and politics and more toward user-generated viral videos.

  • Meta acquired CrowdTangle in 2016 at a time when publishers were heavily reliant on the tech giant for traffic.
  • In recent years, it's stopped investing in the tool, making it less reliable.

The new research tools include Meta's Content Library, which it launched last year, and an API, or backend interface used by developers.

  • Both tools offer researchers access to huge swaths of data from publicly accessible content across Facebook and Instagram.
  • The tools are available in 180 languages and offer global data.
  • Researchers must apply for access to those tools through the Inter-university Consortium for Political and Social Research at the University of Michigan, which will vet their requests.
  • CrowdTangle will no longer be available after Aug. 14.
  • Meta also said that journalists who work for non-profit organizations would be able to use the tools.

Zoom in: Clegg pointed to third-party social media analytics tools, such as Sprout Social and NewsWhip, as resources the journalism community can use to analyze what's going viral in CrowdTangle's absence.

  • Those third-party firms won't get access to Meta's new research tools and will have to rely on their existing backend relationships with Meta to power their data.

Between the lines: CrowdTangle became the source of a heated internal debate at Meta over the company's commitment to transparency following the 2020 election.

  • Journalists for years pointed to what was going viral on CrowdTangle as a point of proof that Facebook's algorithms favored hyper-political content.
  • But Meta has argued that CrowdTangle does not offer a comprehensive view of what's actually going viral, because it doesn't measure the reach of a particular piece of content. Clegg reiterated that point in his interview with Axios.

Zoom out: Facing increasing regulatory pressure, Meta has tried to be more transparent about how it handles content moderation, but some researchers have still argued that Meta could do better.

  • "I think self-evidently, the company has been through a long period of soul-searching after Cambridge Analytica," Clegg said, referencing the 2018 data scandal that led to a flurry of regulatory probes globally.
  • "I think there was quite a lot of retrenchment that happened after that. I think what you're seeing now is we're building out a number of tools methodically to create coherent, rigorous and comprehensive access to data in a way which I really believe will do a lot to put the relationship between Meta and the research community on a more stable footing."
  • Clegg pointed to new transparency and election research reports it has rolled out in recent years as examples of ways it has tried to become more transparent.

The bottom line: Clegg said he hopes people will see its new plans as "a very good faith effort," which he hopes "will lead to a flurry of new and interesting research."

Editor's note: This story has been updated to note that Meta said after publication it would provide access to its Content Library and API to journalists who work for nonprofit organizations.

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