Warning: This post contains a graphic image that some readers may find disturbing.
If you have an iconic image on your hands, forget the front page: You’re posting it on Facebook.
That’s exactly what the Associated Press did Monday, shortly after the assassination of Andrey G. Karlov, the Russian ambassador to Turkey. A young man shot the official to death at an art exhibit in Ankara, and the AP’s Burhan Ozbilici captured the entire violent incident.
Less than two hours after the news broke, the AP’s official account for images on Facebook shared a photograph of the gunman, arm raised in triumph, standing over Karlov’s body.
It spread rapidly, proving for the umpteenth time Facebook’s incredible influence over how we receive information. That one AP post reached nine million people just six hours after it was published, according to internal metrics shared with Mashable.
The photo, as of the publishing of this article, had been shared over 45,000 times, with 5,600 comments and 28,000 “reactions” — which refer to various uses of the Like button.
Lauren Easton, AP’s director of media relations, told Mashable that the AP Images page had amassed more than 21,000 new followers Monday — its total currently rests at just over 331,000. (The nine million people reached by the post refers to the number of users who scrolled past the content in their Facebook feeds, perhaps because it was shared by their friends.)
A representative for NewsWhip, a data analytics service that tracks viral content, told Mashable that the photo post had 175 times the average engagement for the AP Images page. The company provided a graph showing how quickly the photo accumulated interactions — Likes, shares, comments and clicks on Facebook. You can see that it didn’t take long to snowball:
By every measure, the photograph is a huge viral moment for the news outlet. Thousands upon thousands of people shared it with their friends in a few short hours, even though it clearly shows the body of a man who had been shot to death by a terrorist. A gut-turning act of violence, one we wish we’d never seen, became yet another bit of shareable content, wedged between status updates and other social ephemera.
“With those shares, the photo is surfacing on the News Feed of friends of whomever shared the post,” Gabriele Boland, an analyst at NewsWhip, told Mashable. “Because of Facebook’s algorithm that favors content shared by users over publishers and brands, more people are likely to see the photo in their News Feed. Then, they too may share it out, and the cycle continues.”
You’re probably familiar with how those shares look — and the sometimes rancid flavor added by the individual posting the content:
That, for better or worse, is the media today: a startling photograph or article tossed onto your Facebook News Feed, perhaps by a doofus joking about a coldblooded murder.
None of this is new, of course, but let’s consider the context. Facebook has faced intense scrutiny in recent months for its role in distributing misinformation, hoaxes and other so-called “fake news.” Despite its obvious role in distributing news, the company has consistently refused to acknowledge its responsibility as a media company, though last week it announced partnerships with third-party fact-checkers to battle the spread of “disputed” information on its platform.
Reasonably enough, the conversations surrounding Facebook’s responsibilities tend to focus on what’s going wrong. “Fake news” is spreading. The company inadvertently censored an iconic photograph. Its algorithms create “echo chambers” where users comfortably shout their opinions to those who agree with them.
One could argue about whether the photograph — which is violent, disturbing and perhaps even glorifying — should have been published at all, at least without a warning. (The New York Times published an interview justifying its use of the image, saying, “The picture very clearly shows the shocking nature of the attack — much more powerfully … than a mere description.”) Facebook let it stand, and then the site did its thing, spreading information across an intricate network of connected “friends” scrolling through their News Feeds.
It’s something of an apples to oranges comparison, but food for thought: Nine million people is considerably more than the print circulations of the Wall Street Journal and New York Times, combined.
If that doesn’t prove the power Facebook holds over the supposedly free distribution of information, nothing will.