One thing researchers have used to track the spread of viral stories on Facebook — including ones that spread misinformation — is a tool that Meta owns called CrowdTangle. Based on anonymous sources, Bloomberg reports what many have suspected — that Facebook has largely removed development support from CrowdTangle and is making plans to shut the tool down.
Removing CrowdTangle would pull access that people like Kevin Roose have used to surface data showing high engagement with right-wing news sources on Facebook, listing results that sometimes appear to be at odds with Facebook’s curated official reports. In an article last July for The New York Times, Roose described internal “data wars” about how much information the company should release, with CrowdTangle founder and CEO Brandon Silverman arguing it should share more data. Silverman left the company in October 2021.
CrowdTangle is a public insights tool from Facebook that helps publishers, journalists, researchers, fact-checkers and more follow, analyze, and report on what’s happening across social media. We do that by making public content from Pages, Groups, Instagram accounts, and popular subreddits more discoverable, and engagement data on that content, (i.e. shares, views, comments, and reactions) easy to sort through at scale. CrowdTangle does not track content from regular Facebook profiles.
In a Twitter thread, Facebook’s head of the News Feed, John Hegeman, argued that Roose’s daily Top 10 lists (compiled based on CrowdTangle data) show accurate engagement data but “don’t represent what most people see on FB.” He claims a better way to prove that would be through data showing which posts get the most reach, but the company doesn’t usually share that data directly.
When Facebook bought CrowdTangle in 2016, it said the tool could help publishers “surface stories that matter, measure their social performance and identify influencers.” It tracks the performance of stories across other networks, including Instagram and Twitter. The Bloomberg report cites how voter advocacy group Common Cause has used it to find misinformation in real time that it has flagged to Twitter and Facebook for removal.
Today’s report says Meta began an official process to shut down the tool in February but paused it due to the EU’s Digital Services Act push. Now it’s said to be on track for a shut down “eventually,” with Facebook engineers already assigned to the task. A company spokesperson told Bloomberg that CrowdTangle would remain active at least through this year’s midterm elections and claimed Meta has plans to provide “even more valuable” tools for researchers.