As questions swirl about the relationship between the dissemination of misinformation on Facebook and the outcome of Tuesday's election, the company announced it was acquiring a software company whose product is used by outsiders to understand how content spreads on the network, and hold it accountable.
The company, Crowdtangle, monitors engagement (likes, comments, and shares) on on Facebook posts via data pulled from Facebook's API. Crowdtangle's software can help its users understand how content spreads on Facebook through reports that span many months and thousands of posts.
I've used Crowdtangle to examine whether Facebook was keeping to its pledge to fight fake news on its platform (no clear victory) and whether publishers using Instant Articles were gaining an edge over their competitors (yes). The New York Times also used Crowdtangle to report on massive political meme pages on Facebook, and how the information they publish moves around on the social platform. Other journalists used it to track the proliferation of misinformation that flooded Facebook in the months leading up to the election.
Facebook's acquisition of Crowdtangle does not necessarily mean reporters' access to this important data will be revoked, but it inevitably will lead to challenging moments. What will Facebook do when Crowdtangle reveals data that Facebook isn't ready to release (as it did with my Instant Articles story)? Or when the story Crowdtangle's data tells doesn't jive with Facebook's official line?
Asked if Facebook will preserve reporters' access to Crowdtangle's data, even if that data tells an unflattering story about Facebook, a Facebook spokesperson pointed me to its official statement: “Publishers around the world turn to CrowdTangle to surface stories that matter, measure their social performance and identify influencers. We are excited to work with CrowdTangle to deliver these, and more insights to more publishers."
Crowdtangle's existence was of course always dependent on Facebook, since Facebook could have cut off Crowdtangle's access to API if it felt the company was causing more grief than good. But now questions like "I'm seeing something weird on Facebook, can you help me look into it?" will be much harder for Crowdtangle's team to answer. How they respond will be a critical test of Facebook's willingness to be transparent with reporters and by extension, the public.