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Facebook sat on report that reveals most-shared post for months was questionable COVID story
Then published its successor and claimed that was its debut effort
Facebook has revealed a report that shows the most-shared link on the platform in the first three months of 2021 described questionable interpretation of a death attributed to a COVID-19 vaccination – but only did so after publishing a later and more flattering report.
The later report, titled Widely Viewed Content Report: What People See on Facebook, was released on August 18th and covered Q2 2021. Facebook announced it with the following wording:
Transparency is an important part of everything we do at Facebook. In this first quarterly report, our goal is to provide clarity around what people see in their Facebook News Feed … during the quarter.
But the document wasn't Facebook's first such report. The New York Times reported that it had seen a Q1 version of the same document, but that it had never been released to the public.
Facebook quickly published the Q1 document here [PDF].
Both documents detail the 20 domains that received the most links from Facebook, the 20 most-seen links to external content, and the 20 most widely viewed Pages and posts on Facebook itself.
The most-shared external post in Q1 was to a story reporting the death of a Florida obstetrician two weeks after receiving a COVID-19 vaccination, and authorities' investigation of whether the jab contributed to the demise of the generally healthy man.
The report stated the incident was "possibly the nation's first death linked to the vaccine" but later updated the story with additional information that no link between the jab and the death had been found.
Facebook's secret Q1 report states the story was shared over 53 million times.
While the story appears to have been accurate in both of its editions – the doctor did die after his jab, his death was investigated and no link was found, but his symptoms are of a sort that can be expected in very, very, rare instances after a vaccination – it is widely seen as having groundlessly encouraged vaccine hesitancy. The story, and other more blatantly anti-vaccination content on Facebook, is thought to be one reason that US President Joe Biden said Facebook is "killing people" – a position supported by the US Surgeon General.
Both reports also mention vast traffic being directed to UNICEF, cute animals, and inspiring stories.
They also reveal that The Epoch Times, a far-right outlet that opposes the Chinese Communist Party, enthusiastically backed Donald Trump, and often publishes conspiracy theories, gets an awful lot of traffic from Facebook.
Both documents also note that while the items listed on the top 20 links list do get millions of views, they collectively account for under 0.01 per cent of all referrals flowing out of Facebook.
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Facebook comms operative Andy Stone used the company's traditional tactic of apologising for the company's actions and promising to do better in future.
We’re guilty of cleaning up our house a bit before we invited company. We’ve been criticized for that; and again, that’s not unfair.— Andy Stone (@andymstone) August 21, 2021
Stone also pointed out that the publication that carried the story updated it, but that The New York Times did not.
He also suggested that the different types of content listed in the two reports show that Facebook has made progress, opined that the Q3 report will show the company has further crimped the spread of misinformation, and suggested that term and the word "disinformation" has been abused by some who equate it with content they don't like or agree with.
Stone did not, however, address the fact that Facebook billed the Q2 report as its first such effort when it had already compiled, but chose not to release, the Q1 report.
He did, however, offer the following reason for not publishing the Q1 report:
On the question of the unreleased report from earlier this year and why we held it. We ended up holding it because there were key fixes to the system we wanted to make.— Andy Stone (@andymstone) August 21, 2021
But just what "fixes" the system needed were not disclosed. ®