Untangling the Web: Facebook fan mathematics

Don’t believe everything you see on the news about social media.

Netanyahu's Facebook page 370 (photo credit: Facebook screenshot)
Netanyahu's Facebook page 370
(photo credit: Facebook screenshot)
A few weeks ago I wrote a column urging readers not to believe all of the so-called “news” they see on Facebook. This week, I’d like to add another caveat: Don’t believe everything you see on the news about Facebook.
Adding to a growing news trend of reporting figures from social media, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's Facebook page, which just recently passed the 200,000-fan mark, made headlines last week. Granted, it had been a slow news week, what with Passover and Easter falling on the same weekend, but the story would likely have been published either the previous or following week regardless. The same goes for Labor party leader Shelly Yachimovich’s staff attacking Netanyahu's "manipulative" claim the following day and accusing him of inflating his online numbers.
The question of whether - as the Labor leader claims - portions of Netanyahu’s 207,000 Facebook fans are fakes is certainly news, but it’s not the full story. In fact, neither story is the full story. The real question is: Why do we care? And does the number of fans a person boasts have any bearing on their influence anywhere but Facebook?
Or, simply stated: Is this news?
The relationship between social media and mainstream online news media is complex at best, often confounded by murky boundaries and cross-pollination. Recently, news outlets have been developing applications to allow users to explore content without leaving Facebook, while conversely, social networks have developed social plugins so users don’t have to leave the news site to share stories. Such developments are making it increasingly difficult to identify the point where news sites end and social media begins.
However, it’s not just Facebook, nor is it just about counting followers. A whole subsection of Web jargon has sprung up in recent years to help quantify what’s going on in social media for use in the “real world.” Terms like Tweet-per-second, virality and Klout Scores mean nothing - or something entirely different - to people who lack a basic understanding of social media. Nonetheless, these terms are becoming an increasingly acceptable way to measure and serve up details from these emerging platforms.
The Tweet-per-second metric, for example, measures activity on a particular topic on the micro-blogging site, Twitter. Examples of events with record-breaking TPS rates include Beyonce’s pregnancy announcement, Steve Jobs’s resignation from Apple and subsequent death and the Japanese earthquake and tsunami in March 2011. However, while the measure itself can indicate public interest in a topic, it does little to explain sentiment. The figure of 10,245 cited as the number of tweets posted per second during Madonna’s half-time show at the 2011 Superbowl, for example, tells us how many people were engaged with or interested in the performance; it doesn’t tell us is whether they liked or disliked it.
The same goes for virality, or the extent to which a post spreads online. The number of times a photo was shared on Facebook tells you only that - how many times it was shared on Facebook. What’s missing is why it was shared, in what context, and what captions and comments were attributed to it.
It seems that too often, traditional journalism doesn’t have the time, the means or the inclination to properly report on interactions taking place online, and so instead they report on the numbers. Figures are something that can easily and quickly be compared and contrasted, and are considered supposedly solid; the problem is that their meaning is often only skin deep.
The phenomenon is particularly prominent in Israel, where social networks are still in the process of being accepted as legitimate platforms. As Israelis catch up to other Western countries in the expanding uses for social media - like many Israeli politicians have done in the past year - they especially need journalists to interpret this information accurately.
Which brings us back to the issues brought up by the Yachimovich camp in last week’s so-called “Facebook Wars.” When does 200,000 not actually mean 200,000? Just like electoral schemes where deceased persons’ names are fraudulently used to cast ballots, Facebook profiles don’t necessarily represent individual, active people accurately. On top of that, ‘Liking’ a politician’s page could mean many things other than that you actually like that politician in real life. It could mean, for example, that you are an editor on a news desk, PR agent, political strategist or university student. Or, worse still, you could be a bot - not a person at all. In short, these figures are easily manipulated and subject to little regulation and as such, are not always what they appear to be.
Having said that, if numbers weren’t important, there wouldn't be any reason to celebrate them or any need for an attempt to inflate them.
So what do the numbers really mean then? Social influence. It’s all about clout, or “Klout,” as a relatively new website by that name would have us call it. According to the site, Klout works under the assumption that “social media has democratized influence,” using data from social networks to measure an online personality’s influence and that of their network. Each user is given a dynamic score from 1 to 100, developed using an algorithm which filters out spam and bots and instead focuses on the people who are acting on online content. In other words, the Klout Score fills in gaps where the straight fan-base figure fails.
Journalists - and indeed anyone looking to assess social media accurately - need to look at a similar combination of factors; engagement and content on top of the raw figures. Such reportage might include some numbers as a starting point, then go on to assess whether sentiments expressed were mainly positive or negative, describe the demographic makeup of a fan base and quote specific online interactions. A combination of data could also be used, rather than just one figure from one source. This sort of deeper coverage serves the readers by delivering the full picture, rather than regurgitating information which is freely available anyway.
It is not beyond the realm of possibility that in years to come, the democratic process will involve social media elements, though we probably won’t be voting by Tweet any time soon. In the meantime, journalists can begin to interpret the information and provide context for those who are less involved in new media. This will bring legitimacy and clarity to the expanding arena of social media and will also allow readers to understand not just how many followers say, Yair Lapid has (53,701 at time of writing), but what that number might really mean.