UPDATE: May 19, 12:08 p.m. EDT -- After this article was published, SocialSphere CEO John Della Volpe contacted International Business Times and provided a statement: "Facebook Topic Data is meant for marketing and communications purposes and it is not set up to perform historical, or backward looking queries; and our clients find value in that.
Some companies have access to public Facebook posts. But that, in my opinion, is not representative of a topic's performance on Facebook."
Just when you need big data, it’s nowhere to be found. After Facebook made headlines this week for allegedly meddling with its Trending Topics section, several analytics firms that have provided International Business Times with social media data in the past declined to provide numbers related to the ruckus.
The trouble started with a Gizmodo report alleging the company’s Trending Topics section suppresses conservative topics of interest, thanks to the whims of its curators. Within hours of the news, the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce wrote a letter to CEO Mark Zuckerberg asking representatives of Facebook to travel to Washington for a briefing on its curation guidelines. And Thursday, Facebook released its full guidelines for news selection, showing the extent to which human judgment is part of the process.
A specific claim made by a former Facebook staffer in the Gizmodo report, blasted out and exaggerated by conservative outlets, is that liberal curators artificially inflated the popularity of Black Lives Matter online by placing it among Trending Topics.
It’s a bold accusation, especially given that Black Lives Matter has received mammoth television coverage and social media attention. Beyond the direct coverage of the broad, decentralized movement, there also has been relentless mainstream coverage of its protests around the deaths Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Walter Scott and Freddie Gray, as well as upheaval in Ferguson, Missouri, and Baltimore.
To investigate the claim to see if there had been a lift in likes, shares or reach for Black Lives Matter, IBT turned to third-party analytics firms with access to Facebook’s internal data through a partnership with DataSift. By comparing Black Lives Matter to other trending topics, we were looking for some evidence of a boost, as Gizmodo had claimed.
For reasons unclear, no one appeared willing to share the numbers.
ListenFirst, which describes itself as an analytics company “providing insights” based on data services and strategic analysis, initially told IBT it would enthusiastically pull the data for this “interesting story.”
“[W]e can definitely get you some useful data that show the comparative popularity of BLM Facebook engagement,” the company spokesperson said.
A few hours later, the story wasn’t quite interesting enough.
“Given the nature of the sentiment around Facebook [and the fact that ListenFirst works with FB regularly], we’re unfortunately going to have to pass on this story,” the company said. (A week earlier, ListenFirst had provided IBT with similar data about the social engagement related to Donald Trump’s “taco bowl” tweet.)
More Dead Ends
Further outreach resulted in similar dead ends. “I don’t think that we could provide a robust enough data story in this particular case,” a representative from Spredfast said.
“Given the turnaround, we most likely will not be able to participate in this story,” a spokesperson for Crimson Hexagon told IBT. When told that more time was available, the firm flat-out declined.
“Unfortunately, we won’t be able to help with this particular story/request,” the spokesperson said. “Please do keep us in mind for future stories related to social media insights.”
A spokesperson representing another firm, Social Sphere, told IBT in an email: “Unfortunately, our client with access to Facebook topic data would not be allowed to publicly release that info. As I understand it, nor would any of the Facebook partners for contract-related reasons.”
Facebook did not respond to a request for comment on whether its contracts with these firms include terms or guidelines that prevent sharing data related to stories involving Facebook. IBT reported last year Facebook does in fact enforce a little-known guideline that prevents publishers from promoting articles that directly reference the company, heavily restricting their ability to go viral over the social network.
When asked for clarification, Social Sphere appeared to change its reasoning, suggesting that only DataSift could provide that kind of information. DataSift did not respond to a request for comment.