It’s the news feed, stupid. The algorithm.
You’re probably going to read 1,000 things about the recent Facebook whistleblower hearing, so I won’t belabor the discussion. I have just one point I’d like to drive home. But first– I will say I’m sad that, after all this time, journalists from all over give prominent placement to the disinformation published by Facebook about Facebook — The New York Times felt the need to put the firm’s misdirection statement about the hearings in the fourth paragraph of its story about the hearings, showing journalists have learned little about the way both-sides-ism is abused in the information age. I won’t repeat it here, but suffice to say the company just attacked the message without disputing any of the messages.
I’d like people to focus on something simple and often overlooked when it comes to the harm Facebook’s apps cause in the world: Control of the news feed. Witness Fraunces Haugen talked quite a bit about Instagram and Facebook’s use of “engagement-based ranking” for items that appear before users. You can’t pick what appears on these apps, not really. Facebook picks. And it picks the most extreme, most manipulative, most addictive content it can place in front of you. All the time.
Facebook has spent billions of dollars hacking you. Researching you. Picking you apart. Finding your weakness. And then feeding it. Like candy bars with too much sugar, or better yet, opioids that ease the pain just enough. Well, nearly enough, but not quite. So, you must come back for more, and more, and more. To one man, it’s angry Trump content. To a young woman, it’s workout videos. Still another gets climate change outrage, or posts about the Latin Mass. Facebook doesn’t care. Like an evil creature from a science-fiction movie, it finds your weakness and exploits it. To feed the ever-hungrier beast inside.
This is “engagement-based ranking,” as Haugen called it. And when we like or share these addictive things, we “give little hits of dopamine” to our friends. Like a nightmare digital drug gang — *shiver*
Users have forever asked for a simpler way. They want control of the news feed, or the way Instram picks images to display. Consumers have forever wanted a simple page full of close friends’ posts. Babies, weddings, the occasional professional announcement. This request has been denied over and over by Facebook. In fact, the company has stopped outside firms from creating plugins that would enable just that simple feature. Why? Haugen explained: Engagement would fall. Clicks would drop. Revenue would fall.
Facebook claims the reason is something else: User-directed feeds would be full of spam and other annoying content. That reasoning — Facebook-i-an NewsSpeak — is so bogus I hesitate to repeat it. We all deal with spam, every day. We could handle it on Facebook and Instagram in exchange for ending the tool’s ever-increasing, artificial intelligence-fueled addictive algorithm.
So as Congress and other law enforcement ponder what should happen now, here’s my wish list of one: Require Facebook to let users opt out of the algorithm. Or, as Haugen suggested, end Section 230 protections for algorithm-programmed content farms. If they pick the things we see, they should be responsible for them. I’m not saying this would fix every problem. But it sure would fix a lot. And it could happen….immediately.
It’s not that hard to fix. We’ve just failed…so far. Tim Sparapani, another former Facebook employee, told me that last year in my “Original Sin of the Internet” podcast. It’s more true than ever now.