The operators of some of the largest US-based liberal Facebook pages said that errors and inaction by Facebook caused their engagement on the platform to drop dramatically in the critical few weeks before the 2020 presidential election.
Beginning in early October, the pages Occupy Democrats, the Other 98%, and Being Liberal — which collectively have more than 18.5 million followers — experienced significant declines in their reach, a measurement of how many people see a page’s content on the platform. This meant their content received fewer shares, reactions, and comments.
“It's incredibly demoralizing, especially given the cataclysmic state of America, to know that the memes our team is making are being unfairly spiked in the Facebook algorithm,” John Sellers, who runs the Other 98%, told BuzzFeed News.
Sellers and Wojtek Wacowski, the owner of Being Liberal, said Facebook representatives told them the company had mistakenly applied old “false news” strikes against their pages. Strikes are applied when a third-party fact-checker rates content shared by a page as false and can result in a significant reduction in reach. Both page admins said their audiences have not fully recovered, though Facebook claimed the issues had been resolved.
"It’s a bigger thing than just my page."
“Obviously at this time, every day counts,” Wacowski told BuzzFeed News. “If this would be in any other time, I probably would not want to talk because of the potential fear of retaliation [from Facebook]. But it’s a bigger thing than just my page.”
Facebook’s throttling of traffic to liberal pages is just the latest example of how an apparent mistake or behind-the-scenes decision can drastically affect what type of content is distributed across the platform. Liberal page administrators who spoke with BuzzFeed News said that their reach declined by as much as 70%, and still hasn’t recovered.
Occupy Democrats, the largest player in the American liberal Facebook ecosystem, with more than 10 million followers, also saw its reach and engagement decline starting the week of Oct. 4. Rafael Rivero, the cofounder of Occupy Democrats, told BuzzFeed News he has no idea why the page suddenly took a dive but said that it too has suffered from mistaken “false news” strikes in the past.
“That's happened to us several times in the last few months,” he said. “We'll reach out to Facebook and they'll say, 'OK, you're right, that was a bug.' And they'll clear them and then a week later they reappear.”
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“There are currently no restrictions limiting the distribution of any of these Pages,” said Liz Bourgeois, a Facebook spokesperson. “Some of these Pages have previously seen their distribution reduced after their content was rated false by our third party fact-checkers. In a few cases, individual strikes were removed due to false positives, after ratings were reversed by a fact-checker, or because the posts didn’t meet our thresholds for meriting our harshest penalties.”
Bourgeois did not specify which pages were hit with “false positives” or when any of these pages shared content that was “rated false” by fact-checkers.
Impacted page owners argue their experiences show Facebook punishing or neglecting liberal pages while bending over backward to assist conservative publishers. BuzzFeed News reported in August that Facebook had quietly removed valid false news strikes against conservatives pages and Instagram accounts, protecting them from penalties. In some of those instances, Facebook Vice President of Global Public Policy Joel Kaplan, a former George W. Bush administration appointee and Republican lobbyist, personally intervened to question some misinformation strikes.
Last week, the Washington Post revealed that Facebook employees also intervened to remove false news strikes against a pro-Trump super PAC and Donald Trump Jr. These and other prominent conservative accounts are “protected against more severe enforcement because of concern about the perception of anti-conservative bias,” according to the Post.
Earlier this year, Bloomberg News and the Wall Street Journal reported that in 2017, Facebook altered planned changes to its News Feed to “so that left-leaning sites like Mother Jones were affected more than previously planned.” Mother Jones later reported that it suffered severe drops in traffic.
“We did not make changes with the intent of impacting individual publishers,” Facebook spokesperson Andy Stone told Mother Jones. “We only made updates after they were reviewed by many different teams across many disciplines to ensure the rationale was clear and consistent and could be explained to all publishers.”
Complaints from liberal page owners are among a number of problems plaguing Facebook in the critical final days before the election. Last week, the company came under fire from Democratic candidate Joe Biden’s campaign when Facebook’s self-imposed Oct. 27 deadline for all new political ads caused bottlenecks and errors, while the Trump campaign and its supporters were able to run ads that violated the social network’s rules.
"Progressive Facebook pages have to endure a constant low level warfare against them"
“It is currently unclear to us whether or not Facebook is giving Donald Trump an unfair electoral advantage in this particular instance, but it is abundantly clear that Facebook was wholly unprepared to handle this election despite having four years to prepare,” the Biden campaign told reporters in a statement.
“From my perspective right-wing pages are getting preferential treatment while progressive Facebook pages have to endure a constant low level warfare against them,” said Sellers, who runs the Other 98%.
The administrator of another liberal page, Feminist News, which has more than 1.5 million followers, told BuzzFeed News that its reach was affected for a week in October after it was targeted by online trolls. These users mass-reported the page’s content for violating Facebook policy, resulting in its reach being reduced, according to Lacey Dickinson, who manages the page.
“The page got jacked moments after [we published] a viral pro-choice post that was controversial and generating a lot of engagement,” she said. “All of our Facebook posts following that post seemed artificially reduced, some by a lot, some not much — but this lasted about a week.”
While Facebook's Bourgeois acknowledged that Feminist News was targeted with coordinated reporting, she said the issue "hasn't impacted the Page’s distribution."
While these large liberal pages are fighting to reach people, their right-wing counterparts, including those of the conservative commentator Dan Bongino, Fox News, and Daily Wire and its founder Ben Shapiro are seeing increases in engagement typical for the final stretch of a presidential election cycle, according to data from CrowdTangle, an analytics tool owned by Facebook.
A previous BuzzFeed News analysis of page engagement for hundreds of US political Facebook pages between 2015 and 2017 found that Occupy Democrats and Fox News were the dominant pages on the left and the right, respectively, and that they were largely neck and neck leading up to the 2016 election.
Data from CrowdTangle shows a similar pattern in recent months, with a sudden divergence in the middle of October that saw Occupy Democrats decline sharply while Fox News rose.
Rivero, the Occupy Democrats admin, said his page began to regain some of its audience in the past few days, though he doesn’t know why; Facebook has not shared any information with him.
Sellers said Facebook never reached out to let him know the page’s reach was being reduced or that the company had reapplied six old false news strikes to his page. “They didn't tell us why it had been reduced or even that it had been reduced,” he said. “It's my belief that we would still be nuked now if we hadn't noticed and made a bunch of noise.”
Rivero said Facebook’s decisions remain opaque but gave the company credit for making progress against false content. “I actually do applaud them for doing a better job of weeding out just pure nonsense,” he said.
But he rolled his eyes at conservative publishers and politicians who complain about censorship and bias while receiving preferential treatment from the platform.
“I think it's completely absurd that the right wing thinks that they're being censored on Facebook,” he said. “Their content runs rampant all over Facebook.”
Rivero said a strong election result for Democrats could be what forces Facebook to change how it treats liberal pages and content.
“If by this time next week we control both houses of Congress and the presidency, maybe Facebook will be forced to take the concerns of the left more seriously,” Rivero said.
Brianna Sacks contributed reporting to this story.