By late Tuesday night, anyone watching the election returns on television was seeing the same sets of reactions on the faces of liberals and Democrats around the nation. Up through eight o’clock on the east coast there were millions of joyful countenances, filled with celebratory anticipation showing up in countless selfies with “I voted” stickers. As the next few hours wore on, those expressions changed to worried glances followed by horrified grimaces and finally the sobbing despair of the damned. But if you were only following the news on Facebook and most of your contacts are liberals, right up until last night your feed may have looked decidedly different. The happy pictures of Clinton enthusiasts were still peppering many screens as if everything had gone exactly according to plan.
That was the experience of Adrienne LaFrance at NextGov, who asks, Can Somebody Please Tell Facebook’s Algorithm Hillary Lost?
My Facebook feed this morning is a disorienting mesh of hope and anguish. It’s still filled with so many of those pantsuit selfies—along with the Clinton-supporting dads who took their daughters to the polls to witness history, and even the guy who found in his closet the nearest approximation of a Clintonesque pantsuit to wear to work yesterday—all mixed in with stunned reactions to the outcome of the race. (The Trump supporters I know have been mostly, though not entirely, restrained in their Facebook celebrating.)
To some this may look like designed liberal bias and you can’t be blamed for thinking it. After all, Facebook has been under mounting criticism for pushing the social network as far left as possible. Even Wikileaks added to the growing mountain of evidence that they’ve had their fingers on the scale in favor of Democrats when it was revealed that their COO was looking for ways to help Clinton behind the scenes.
But in the case of all of those favorable Clinton posts and pictures it turns out that the real “culprit” here is simply the underlying algorithm which Facebook uses to select the news you see first. LaFrance goes on to explain it.
This is because Facebook doesn’t rely on chronology or newsworthiness to determine what tops your feed. Any given Facebook post is prominent in large part because of how much engagement it has already gotten. (See also: the writer Katie Notopoulos’s case study involving Facebook and overnight oats.)
So when a friend’s smiling, pro-Clinton voting selfie gets 83 likes, that image might linger high up in your feed for days—despite her subsequent posts about disappointment with the outcome of the election, or another friend’s post about binge-watching “Lord of the Rings” clips as a post-election coping mechanism, or any other newer updates for that matter.
While I love a good conspiracy theory as much as (or frequently more than) the next guy, this makes a lot more sense. Obviously my own feed shifted quickly to Trump victory dances, but it’s easy to see how liberals weren’t “liking” posts about how awful the election turned out nearly as often. With that in mind, the smiling selfies and confident grins which attracted far more thumbs up were sticking around at the top of the news feed for plenty of liberals. But you can see how some of them might have found it disconcerting given the massive bouts of depression they’ve been battling.
That’s not to say that Facebook is suddenly absolved of all charges of liberal bias. Far from it. But this wasn’t any sort of a conspiracy to boost pro-Hillary sentiments. Or if it was, it was one of the stupidest schemes in history.