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Congress is freaking out over Facebook's algorithm changes

Some fear pressure to be "more engaging" will lead to more divisive, partisan content.

by Alex Thompson
May 8 2018, 6:44pm

Leslie Xia

Congress is pissed at Facebook, but it has nothing to do with fake news, election meddling, or even Diamond and Silk.

Nope, Republicans and Democrats in Congress and their staff are frustrated that constituents aren't seeing their posts because of the platform’s algorithm changes over the last several months.

“Our numbers just dove,” Josh Miller-Lewis, communications director for Bernie Sanders, told VICE News in describing how the senator’s page (with its 7.4 million likes) is getting fewer shares, reactions, and video views. “They made a decision to prioritize individual Facebook profiles over pages, but that also reduces politicians’ ability to communicate with their constituents, which is a role Facebook sees itself fulfilling.”

Facebook has launched a variety of tools to facilitate more conversation between politicians and their constituents, such as Town Hall, Constituents Badges, and District Insights. But congressional offices say those tools don’t make up for the decline they've seen after the recent algorithm changes. In conversations with 10 offices in the House and Senate and across the political spectrum, staffers used words like “flatlining,” “plummeting,” and “crashing” to describe their Facebook engagement numbers in recent months.

A NewsWhip analysis confirms that engagement has declined sharply for a variety of congressional pages over the past several months.

Newswhip

“We updated News Feed to help people meaningfully connect with friends and family first,” a Facebook spokesperson explained VICE News. “As News Feed prioritizes posts from friends, it means public pages of all types are more likely to experience declines.”

At the center of the controversy is whether Facebook should treat politicians and government pages any differently than other pages. Unlike businesses and media companies who can offset declines in engagement by paying Facebook for advertising, Senate rules prohibit offices from spending taxpayer money on buying advertisements, and House offices must take it out of a small discretionary budget for the office, which often means just a few thousand dollars a year for online advertising.

Reach is down

Even Donald Trump’s Facebook page, with over 23 million followers, has experienced sharp decreases in video views, interactions, and other forms of engagement. But unlike official congressional pages, Trump can spend campaign money to advertise on the platform and make up for the losses from the algorithm changes.

Like Trump, members of Congress can still advertise on their campaign pages as well, using donations, but the algorithm changes mean they must now spend a lot more money to build an audience that can compete with the likes of Sanders or Trump, who were able to grow their audiences more organically before the recent shifts.

“The rain seems to be falling on conservatives and liberals, affecting both of them equally.”

“Organic reach has gone down,” said Republican digital consultant Eric Wilson. “The rain seems to be falling on conservatives and liberals, affecting both of them equally.”

But on the Hill, offices have been furiously experimenting with new approaches to their Facebook strategy, including more Facebook Lives, testing vertical versus horizontal video, and feeling pressure to do less local government postings, which may not be as shareable. Several offices also looked into switching to personal profiles (like Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg), which are less affected by the latest changes, but concluded it would be too difficult to replicate the audience they've already built on their pages.

After a few months, most aides say they feel like the headwinds of the algorithm changes are just too strong. Several offices said they're getting only a fraction of the engagement they had several months ago, despite having significantly more followers.

Digital directors for Democratic senators confronted Facebook’s liaison, Crystal Patterson, with their concerns in a meeting on April 26 at the Hart Senate building. Patterson’s answers about declining engagement were vague and mostly came down to “create more engaging content,” three aides who attended told VICE News.

Those aides also said they were annoyed that Patterson was emphatic about welcoming feedback but didn’t take any notes or write anything down about the concerns that aides raised.

Partisan content

But some warn that Congressional offices are already opting for more divisive and partisan content online in order to regain their lost engagement. This would exacerbate the existing dynamic where the most liberal and conservative politicians are already attracting far more Facebook followers than moderates, as documented in a 2017 Pew study.

“It rewards incendiary content. It doesn’t reward agricultural roundtables.”

“It rewards incendiary content,” said one high ranking Senate staffer. “It doesn’t reward agricultural roundtables.”

Democratic aides in the House and the Senate also expressed concern that Facebook told them at the meetings that in order to run any ads on the platform, aides would have to provide the last four digits of their Social Security number, their physical mailing address, and their driver’s license as part of their new political ad verification system. “Facebook wants even more of my information?” said a House Democratic aide who said they would probably give Facebook the information anyway because their job depended on it.

There is also concern on the Hill that Facebook’s changes could help or hurt some members more than others. Facebook says that the declines are across the board without preference for party or politician, but the lack of transparency around the algorithm makes it difficult to know for sure, even if the company was doing so inadvertently.

“One of the things they need to do is be more transparent,” said Wilson. “If you saw that all 535 congressional offices saw a 10 to 20 percent dip, it would make everyone feel better. If you leave it open to conspiracy theories and anecdotal, then you leave yourself open to this.”

Cover illustration: Leslie Xia