Facebook does damage control after claims of rigged News Feed

One user reports a 1,000 percent increase in interaction after paying to promote a post

Facebook is working to set the record straight following a report suggesting that the site is gaming its News Feed so that people who pay to promote their posts will get more interaction from users than those who don't.

Facebook issued a statement Monday, a day after a report in The New York Times took a critical look at the way the "follow" feature works on the social network. In a New York Times blog post Sunday, columnist Nick Bilton explained how the number of people liking and resharing links he posts has dropped dramatically since Facebook first launched following.

Organizations and people can enable the following feature on Facebook to let others see their posts without having to follow them back. The follow tool, which Facebook originally launched in 2011 as the "subscribe" button, has been referred to as the social network's version of Twitter. Bilton has following enabled on his account.

When he used Facebook's sponsored advertising tool to pay US$7 to promote a post, Bilton saw a 1,000 percent increase in interaction with that article, he wrote. His argument is that Facebook's News Feed algorithm is incentivizing followed users to pay to promote their posts when their engagement numbers drop.

Facebook said that's not the case.

"There have been recent claims suggesting that our News Feed algorithm suppresses organic distribution of posts in favor of paid posts in order to increase our revenue," the company said Monday in a statement. "This is not true."

"Our goal with News Feed is always to show each individual the most relevant blend of stories that maximizes engagement and interest," the company said, noting that overall engagement has in aggregate increased 34 percent year over year for people who have turned the follow feature on.

A few isolated data points should not be taken as representative of what is happening overall, the company said.

The site's promoted posts program, meanwhile, launched last October and was expanded to allow users to push their friends' posts to the top of news feeds last month.

However, the algorithm for News Feed is different from the company's advertising algorithm, "in that we don't replace the most engaging posts in News Feed with sponsored ones," Facebook said.

Also, comparing the engagement rates on two different posts year over year "is an apples-to-oranges comparison," said the company.

Still, in an attempt to explain the situation Bilton described, Facebook said it's possible that some users are engaging less with public figures now that the onslaught of marketing efforts and media coverage surrounding the follow tool has died down.

News Feed has been criticized before. The algorithms that it uses to display certain friends' content but not others has led to user complaints, while others have questioned whether it places too much emphasis on "likes" in determining whether to display ads.

Facebook has been tweaking News Feed since it was launched in 2006. On Thursday it will be getting a makeover, although a notice Facebook put out last week on the changes suggests they will only be cosmetic.

Zach Miners covers social networking, search and general technology news for IDG News Service. Follow Zach on Twitter at @zachminers. Zach's e-mail address is zach_miners@idg.com

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