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Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Facebook is now sharing information about which posts on its platform get the most views, but researchers and critics tell Axios the new quarterly reports lack the details or timeliness to be of much use.

Why it matters: While Facebook has offered its "Widely Viewed Content Report" as a transparency move, the company won't persuade critics that it's winning the fight against misinformation unless it gives outsiders more of an open window into near-real-time data.

Catch up quick: Facebook's release last week of the report marked its first attempt to quantify a kind of "greatest hits" of the News Feed for a particular time period.

  • The New York Times reported days later that Facebook had prepared, but not released, a similar report for the first quarter. Facebook later acknowledged and shared the list, which included a mainstream news article popular with the anti-vaccine crowd.

Between the lines: While the first quarter's release might have been less flattering to Facebook than the second one, critics say the real issue is that the reports don't reveal much.

  • Accountable Tech, a nonprofit that's critical of Facebook, called the new report "performative and self-serving."
  • "They are constantly finding new ways to slice and dice data to advance their preferred narratives about their products," Accountable Tech's Jesse Lehrich told Axios. "But quarterly reports showing YouTube and Amazon were the most-viewed domains do nothing to help us understand the fast-changing threat landscapes on vaccine disinformation, political extremism or anything else meaningful."

The big picture: Lehrich said that what researchers really need is true transparency — that is, broad access to real-time data.

  • While Facebook offers limited data to around 300 researchers via special programs, far more data is publicly available from Twitter.
  • "There is a reason everyone focuses on Twitter when trying to identify bots," Media Matters for America president Angelo Carusone told Axios. "It's really easy to do that. You can't do that on Facebook." (In fairness, it is also easier to create bot accounts on Twitter, too.)

Carusone said his wish list for data from Facebook begins with information on how often specific articles and sites are being shown to users.

  • Facebook-owned CrowdTangle offers data on engagement, he noted, but the company has been reluctant to offer insight on how those metrics correlate to reach.

He said the company could also share data on how certain content or groups are getting their traffic — from recommendations, through Facebook's own peer-to-peer messaging systems, or from activity off of Facebook.

  • That's what researchers need to untangle whether an unfolding debate is emerging organically or fanned by inauthentic behavior, he added.

The other side: Twitter is a (nearly) all-public platform, while Facebook offers users a promise of considerable privacy, even if it has a checkered record of keeping that promise. (Remember that $5 billion penalty from the Federal Trade Commission?)

The bottom line: Facebook can fairly limit public access to some kinds of data in the name of protecting users' privacy. But it could also provide tons more transparency into content metrics without putting anyone's personal data at risk.

Go deeper:

Go deeper

Dec 1, 2021 - Technology

Lawmakers bring back Facebook whistleblower for encore

Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen speaks in front of the Internal Market and Consumer Protection Committee at the European Parliament on November 8, 2021 in Brussels, Belgium. Photo: Thierry Monasse/Getty Images

Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen returns to Capitol Hill Wednesday to testify before the House Energy and Commerce Committee on proposals to revamp online platforms' liability immunity.

Why it matters: Haugen, a former Facebook engineer, has shared troves of internal research documents that lawmakers believe could open a path for legislation overhauling Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, tech's liability shield.

Dec 1, 2021 - Health

Meta removes accounts linked to COVID disinformation effort by China

Facebook's corporate headquarters campus in Menlo Park, California. Photo: Josh Edelson/AFP via Getty Images

Meta announced Wednesday it has removed over 600 Facebook and Instagram accounts linked to a Chinese influence operation that claimed the U.S. was pressuring the World Health Organization (WHO) to blame COVID on China.

Why it matters: Though Meta said the network was unsuccessful, it marks yet another COVID disinformation campaign instigated by China in an effort to discredit the U.S.

The lawmakers playing up infrastructure the most

Expand chart
Data: Quorum; Chart: Kavya Beheraj/Axios

Both of the Democrats' vulnerable Arizona senators have been some of the most active lawmakers in hyping "infrastructure" in their press releases, newsletters, tweets and Facebook posts.

Why it matters: Democrats are hopeful their successes on roads, bridges — and, possibly, expanding the social safety net — will lessen losses they're expecting in the 2022 midterms. The social media activity has been tracked since President Biden signed the $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure package into law.