Until recently, Facebook could feel at times like the virtual equivalent of a sleepy bingo parlor — an outmoded gathering place populated mainly by retirees looking for conversation and cheap fun.
That was before the coronavirus.
Now, stuck inside their homes and isolated from their families and friends, millions of Americans are rediscovering the social network’s virtues. That has lifted usage of Facebook features like messaging and video calls to record levels and powered a surge in traffic for publishers of virus-related news.
As of Thursday, more than half the articles being consumed on Facebook in the United States were related to the coronavirus, according to an internal report obtained by The New York Times. Overall U.S. traffic from Facebook to other websites also increased by more than 50 percent last week from the week before, “almost entirely” owing to intense interest in the virus, the report said.
The report, which was posted to Facebook’s internal network by Ranjan Subramanian, a data scientist at the company, was a lengthy analysis of what it called an “unprecedented increase in the consumption of news articles on Facebook” over the past several weeks.
According to the report, more than 90 percent of the clicks to coronavirus content came from “Power News Consumers” and “Power News Discussers” — Facebook’s terms for users who read and comment on news stories much more frequently than the average user. The company is now considering several options for targeting those people with higher-quality information to make sure it is “being spread downstream.”
“These users are having an extraordinary impact on the coronavirus information diet of other Facebook users,” Mr. Subramanian wrote.
The report shows that Facebook is closely monitoring people’s news habits during a critical period and actively trying to steer them toward authoritative sources in what amounts to a global, real-time experiment in news distribution.
At times, Facebook itself seemed unsure which news sources users would turn to in a crisis, with Mr. Subramanian noting that “fortunately” many people were clicking on links from publishers that the company considers high-quality.
Facebook’s revival as a dominant news hub is a striking shift. Sharing of news stories on the social network had declined for years, partly because the company tried to emphasize feel-good personal posts over polarizing national news.
In 2018, Facebook overhauled its News Feed algorithm to show more posts by family and friends, which hurt news and entertainment publishers who relied on it for traffic. Some of those publishers shut down as a result of Facebook’s changes, while others were forced to seek traffic elsewhere.
As of last week, much of the new, virus-related traffic on Facebook was flowing to mainstream news outlets. The Washington Post got 119 percent more clicks on its Facebook links during a two-week period this month than in the same period last month, while traffic to articles published by The Atlantic more than quadrupled over the same period, according to the report. The Times’s Facebook traffic has grown by 180 percent, while traffic to NBC News rose 160 percent.
In a statement, Campbell Brown, Facebook’s vice president for global news partnerships, said, “We are working overtime to help people find and share credible information right now which includes important news from local and national publishers, and expert health organizations. We’re actively testing ways to ensure people see more timely and explanatory Covid-19 related news and information, while out-of-date news gets demoted.”
Facebook’s report also listed the “news ecosystem quality” score, or NEQ, for 100 of its top publishers. Those scores, which Facebook adopted last year and has never spoken about publicly, are calculated based on a number of variables, including whether an outlet is broadly trusted by Facebook users and whether it has a history of sharing clickbait or misinformation. They are one of many factors that determine how often an outlet’s articles show up on users’ News Feeds.
Many of the highest scores listed on the report belonged to large, mainstream news organizations like CNN, The Times and The Post.
The report claimed that since early March, when stories about the coronavirus outbreak began catching on with American Facebook users, those users have sought out news from higher-quality sources than usual.
“We are continuing to see that people are on average reading Covid-19 content from higher-NEQ publishers compared to the other news links they are consuming,” it said.
That was good news for those publishers — and for society, given the relationship between getting accurate information about the virus and taking proper health precautions to limit its spread.
But it was bad news for publishers with lower scores. The Daily Mirror, a British tabloid that had the most clicks from Facebook of any English-language publisher in February, had its traffic drop 28 percent this month. And Facebook traffic to The Daily Wire, a conservative publication that ranked third in clicks among all English-language publications on Facebook in February, fell 20 percent.
These trends may signal that users are seeking out more authoritative sources on their own. It could also indicate that Facebook was changing its algorithms to promote content from high-quality publishers.
The report mentioned an experiment called “Mixshift Higher NEQ Health Links,” which was meant to test the effects of elevating higher-quality publications in Facebook’s News Feed on health-related topics. The report called the test’s initial results “promising,” although it also said the change had not yet formally launched.
The outlets with the biggest drops in traffic over the month specialize in news unrelated to the virus. Mashable, the technology website, had its Facebook traffic plummet by 72 percent this month, according to the report, while Facebook traffic to BET and Sports Illustrated each dropped more than 50 percent.
The report noted that local news publishers had gotten a bigger boost in traffic than nonlocal outlets, reflecting users’ interest in how the virus is affecting their immediate communities.
Facebook has not been entirely successful at keeping virus-related misinformation from spreading. Last week, a Medium post written by a tech marketer that played down the virus’s seriousness was shared on Facebook more than 50,000 times, according to data from CrowdTangle, a Facebook-owned data platform.
The post, whose author claimed it had gotten 2.6 million views, was later taken down by Medium for violating the site’s policies. A Medium spokeswoman, Sandee Roston, said the post was removed “based on its violation of our rules, specifically the risk analysis framework we use for controversial, suspect and extreme content.”
Facebook’s report, which lists 100 English-language news publishers ranked by the number of clicks they received from the social network in February, also provided a rare glimpse of where users typically get their news.
The Daily Mirror, The Daily Mail and The Daily Wire made up the top three, followed by GoFundMe, the crowdfunding site. The BBC, CNN, The Washington Post, and Fox News appeared in the top 10, while MSNBC ranked 79th, behind Breitbart, Page Six, and ScaryMommy.com.
The report also hinted at Facebook’s potential to use its enormous data trove to predict the spread of the virus. Detailed maps and charts in the report showed the rapid spread of the virus coinciding with increased traffic to coronavirus-related news stories.
As of Feb. 19, few Americans were reading about the virus, according to the report. Two weeks later, nearly 1 out of every 5 articles clicked on in the Pacific Northwest, where the virus first took hold in the nation, were about the outbreak. By March 19, a “radical change” had occurred: Nearly half of all articles clicked on across the United States were about the coronavirus.
The report, which noted a “somewhat correlated” relationship between users’ interest in virus-related news and confirmed cases in a region, also included maps showing regions where interest in the pandemic was on the rise, including areas of South America, Southeast Asia and Africa.
In Eastern Europe, the report noted a “huge increase” in the number of people interested in virus news in countries including Poland and Ukraine, which did not align with the number of cases reported in those places. Should those countries begin reporting higher numbers, it could show that Facebook data is a leading indicator of where the virus may have taken hold.
The report also mentioned that users might eventually tire of coronavirus news.
“News fatigue can be a real issue,” it read, “and we should monitor people’s sentiment on this dimension to see if there are any product or ranking changes that are contributing to fatigue.”