Less noticed was that a right-wing media was developing in opposition to and alongside these left-leaning sites. “By 2014, the outlines of the Facebook-native hard-right voice and grievance spectrum were there,” The New York Times’ media and tech writer John Herrman told me, “and I tricked myself into thinking they were a reaction/counterpart to the wave of soft progressive/inspirational content that had just crested. It ended up a Reaction in a much bigger and destabilizing sense.”
The other sign of algorithmic trouble was the wild swings that Facebook Video underwent. In the early days, just about any old video was likely to generate many, many, many views. The numbers were insane in the early days. Just as an example, a Fortune article noted that BuzzFeed’s video views “grew 80-fold in a year, reaching more than 500 million in April.” Suddenly, all kinds of video—good, bad, and ugly—were doing 1-2-3 million views.
As with news, Facebook’s video push was a direct assault on a competitor, YouTube. Videos changed the dynamics of the News Feed for individuals, for media companies, and for anyone trying to understand what the hell was going on.
Individuals were suddenly inundated with video. Media companies, despite no business model, were forced to crank out video somehow or risk their pages/brands losing relevance as video posts crowded others out.
And on top of all that, scholars and industry observers were used to looking at what was happening in articles to understand how information was flowing. Now, by far the most viewed media objects on Facebook, and therefore on the internet, were videos without transcripts or centralized repositories. In the early days, many successful videos were just “freebooted” (i.e., stolen) videos from other places or reposts. All of which served to confuse and obfuscate the transport mechanisms for information and ideas on Facebook.
Through this messy, chaotic, dynamic situation, a new media rose up through the Facebook burst to occupy the big filter bubbles. On the right, Breitbart is the center of a new conservative network. A study of 1.25 million election news articles found “a right-wing media network anchored around Breitbart developed as a distinct and insulated media system, using social media as a backbone to transmit a hyper-partisan perspective to the world.”
Breitbart, of course, also lent Steve Bannon, its chief, to the Trump campaign, creating another feedback loop between the candidate and a rabid partisan press. Through 2015, Breitbart went from a medium-sized site with a small Facebook page of 100,000 likes into a powerful force shaping the election with almost 1.5 million likes. In the key metric for Facebook’s News Feed, its posts got 886,000 interactions from Facebook users in January. By July, Breitbart had surpassed The New York Times’ main account in interactions. By December, it was doing 10 million interactions per month, about 50 percent of Fox News, which had 11.5 million likes on its main page. Breitbart’s audience was hyper-engaged.