For more than a year, we’ve been analyzing a massive new data set that we designed to study public behavior on the 500 U.S. Facebook pages that get the most engagement from users. Our research, part of which will be submitted for peer review later this year, aims to better understand the people who spread hate and misinformation on Facebook. We hoped to learn how they use the platform and, crucially, how Facebook responds. Based on prior reporting, we expected it would be ugly. What we found was much worse.
The most alarming aspect of our findings is that people like John, Michelle, and Calvin aren’t merely fringe trolls, or a distraction from what really matters on the platform. They are part of an elite, previously unreported class of users that produce more likes, shares, reactions, comments, and posts than 99 percent of Facebook users in America.
They’re superusers. And because Facebook’s algorithm rewards engagement, these superusers have enormous influence over which posts are seen first in other users’ feeds, and which are never seen at all. Even more shocking is just how nasty most of these hyper-influential users are. The most abusive people on Facebook, it turns out, are given the most power to shape what Facebook is.
This connects to a point I have been considering for a while now: the social media activity we tend to see or hear about is often not representative of society as a whole. It depends who is on different platforms, who uses it regularly or are power users, how algorithms work to highlight particular content, and how it is all experienced by users. A social media trend may not reveal much about broader patterns even as particular conversations, sites, and pockets of activity could reveal much about smaller groups or sections.
More broadly, Facebook says it has the goal of connecting people. How do superusers fit into this? Abusive users might be able to connect people, albeit in specific ways that may not be what people generally hope for when they think of connecting. Is the goal to connect people by boosting “average” engagement rather than the users who post the most? On the flip side, how many users do not engage at all and what might effectively move them into engaging regularly?