Ice hotter on Facebook; Twitter remains cool as breaking news tool

SAN FRANCISCO (USA TODAY) — The Ferguson, Mo., protests dominated Twitter for days last month. Not so on Facebook.

Facebook users engaged with the Ice Bucket Challenge viral fundraising phenomenon more than twice as much as they did the Ferguson protests in mid-August, data obtained by USA TODAY show.

A random sample of 100,000 U.S. Facebook users' public timelines showed 3,250 were talking about Ferguson in their posts and activities from Aug. 9 to Aug. 20, according to an analysis by Portage, a Minneapolis-based social analytics and educational company. That amounted to about 3.3% of Facebook users sampled.

In contrast, 7,703 were talking about the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, or 7.7% of the sample, for the same period.

Users engaged 2.4 times more on "ice bucket challenge" than they did on "Ferguson," says Portage CEO Alex Houg, who performed the analysis at the request of USA TODAY.

An engaged user was someone who commented on the topic, shared a link about it or liked a post with the key word.

The estimate seems to confirm what had been largely anecdotal — that a Facebook (ticker: FB) user was much less likely to read about the Ferguson protests than someone on Twitter (ticker: TWTR).

Facebook releases data on how much users discuss certain events, say the World Cup, the Royal Wedding or the Olympics. But Facebook declined to comment on Ferguson.

Twitter, the reigning social network for breaking news, is expanding its arsenal of tools, which makes it easier for the public to see how often a topic is discussed.

Reverb, a new tool geared to journalists, shows that Ferguson or #Ferguson was mentioned 14.7 million times from Aug. 9 to Aug. 20.

Protesters tweeted photos of marchers, video Vines of interactions with the police, and as protests turned to looting and tear gas, images of smoke, arrests and gas masks. Some of these were retweeted tens of thousands of times.

On Facebook, the discussion around Ferguson, Mo., appeared more muted in the days following the Aug. 9 shooting of Michael Brown, the catalyst for the protests.

Instead, Facebook feeds appeared to be filled with friends calling on each other to donate to research on amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, commonly known as Lou Gehrig's disease, and to dump a bucket of ice water on themselves.

The explanation for the disconnect was the big difference in how the two networks surface news.

A Twitter user sees what his or her followers are tweeting. While you can customize trending topics for location, it's also very easy to see what topics are hot among Twitter users worldwide — from boy band One Direction to professional soccer's Premier League to Ferguson.

Facebook is another story. It uses a ranking algorithm that filters what people see in their News Feeds. So what a person sees when he or she looks at the stream of posts and shared links is filtered based on that person's past activity, including posts liked, commented on or shared.

The idea is to make the Facebook News Feed more relevant to the user, but Facebook is often less able to respond quickly to breaking news that stretches beyond someone's previous interests and those of his or her friends.

In other words, even when Ferguson was being talked about on Facebook, many people still didn't see mention of it.

Rashad Robinson, executive director with grass-roots civil rights organization, says he saw Ferguson all over his News Feed. But he fielded calls from white donors who were outraged they did not.


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