Facebook releases shelved content transparency report after criticism it wasn’t being transparent

Facebook released a report (.pdf) late Saturday about its most-viewed posts in the first quarter of 2021 that it had initially shelved reportedly because it made the company look bad.

As first reported by the New York Times, which obtained a copy of the Q1 report before Facebook released it, the most-viewed link on Facebook between January and March of this year was a since-updated news story that suggested a Florida doctor’s death may be linked to the COVID-19 vaccine.

Facebook policy communications manager Andy Stone tweeted Saturday that the criticism Facebook received for not releasing the report “wasn’t unfair,” but tried to unpack the complexities of how it handled that most-viewed link:

“News outlets wrote about the south Florida doctor that died. When the coroner released a cause of death, the Chicago Tribune appended an update to its original story; NYTimes did not. Would it have been right to remove the Times story because it was COVID misinfo?” Stone tweeted. “Of course not. No one is actually suggesting this and neither am I. But it does illustrate just how difficult it is to define misinformation.”

Stone said Facebook had withheld the January-March report “because there were key fixes to the system we wanted to make.” He didn’t elaborate further on what those fixes were, but tweeted a link to the Q1 report.

What Facebook released on August 18th was a report showing the most-viewed content in its public News Feed from April to June, its second quarter. It offers a rosier picture of the company; the most-viewed post in Q2 was a word puzzle that invited users to pick out the first three words they saw. The second most-viewed Facebook post between April and June asked users over 30 to post a picture of themselves if they looked young. The most-viewed domains included YouTube, UNICEF, Spotify, and CBS News. Among the top ten most-viewed links on Facebook in Q2 were a GIF of kittens, and a UNICEF response page for India’s COVID-19 crisis.

It’s not totally clear why Facebook decided to release these reports of popular content at all, but criticism of the platform’s handling of misleading COVID-19 information has been mounting in recent weeks. The Biden administration has urged Facebook and other social media platforms to do a better job at dealing with misleading or false information about COVID-19 vaccines on their sites.

Another possible motivation for Facebook’s new “transparency” reports is likely the work of New York Times tech columnist Kevin Roose who last year began using Facebook-owned content analytics platform CrowdTangle to compile and publish daily lists of the top-performing US Facebook pages, lists which frequently included pages dedicated to former President Trump, and right-leaning pundits like Ben Shapiro and Dan Bongino. The lists were reportedly a source of irritation for Facebook.

Facebook did not immediately reply to a request for comment on Sunday morning. You can read the full Q1 content transparency report below.