Facebook’s Robot-Run Trending Section Was Always Doomed Because People, As A Rule, Are Morons
A country that routinely forks over millions of dollars to see Michael Bay movies is not one that can be trusted to inform their own news decisions. And yet that is exactly what Mark Zuckerberg was hoping for when he decided to can all of his Facebook Trending editors and hand the space over to a team of unfeeling robots.
Like the tech billionaires HBO’s Silicon Valley so perfectly lampoons, it’s likely that Zuckerberg and his team at Facebook sincerely believed removing the human element from the equation was a way to ensure “objectivity” in what users see and click on in its Trending section. It was also a convenient way to assuage the anger from conservatives who recently accused the company of censoring their viewpoints. No more liberal Millennials minding the shop. No robot has ever donated to Planned Parenthood. Enter an objective utopia, where users decide what they want to see!
And what they want to see… was this garbage apparently.
As the Washington Post noted:
The headline, which was visible to anyone who hovered over Megyn Kelly’s name on the Trending list, refers to the Fox News personality as a “traitor” and claims that the cable channel has “Kick[ed] her out for backing Hillary.” (They have not.)
The article was featured prominently as the top news story on Facebook about Megyn Kelly as of Monday morning, until her name disappeared from the Trending list about 9:30 a.m. The story is far down the rabbit hole of junk information, a typo-ridden aggregation of an aggregation about a clash of personalities between Kelly and Bill O’Reilly.
And this goof — if one can call it that — comes on the heels of some disturbing data about how Facebook is manipulating what publications users see on their timelines. The big takeaway: “respectable” publications (albeit ones oft accused of “liberal bias” by Fox News clowns) are tanking, disreputable right-wing garbage mills like “Young Cons” and “Drudge” are exploding.
As people get dumber, the news they read does too, which makes people dumber, which makes the news they read stupider still. A vicious cycle of intellectual suicide.
The prevelance of right-wing propaganda on Facebook is partly because the site’s userbase is aging. Once a hangout for college students, Facebook has increasingly been invaded by The Olds while The Youngs flee to safer spaces like Instagram and Snapchat. What’s left is a group of inherently gullible, conservative-leaning people who will click on an article titled “Fox News Exposes Traitor Megyn Kelly, Kicks Her Out For Backing Hillary.” So many users will click on that article, in fact, that Facebook’s robots will shove it into “trending” where even more people will get to see it.
However, your aunt’s gullibility isn’t the only one to blame for all of this. Conservatives are highly motivated to share information that, while maybe be false (if you want to get all technical about it!) sounds right to them. Sure, there is no evidence that President Obama is a Muslim, but this article has a photoshopped picture of him kneeling in a Mosque so let me just add that to my newsfeed really quick.
(Note: To be fair, conservatives aren’t the only group dabbling in the security blanket of willful ignorance and sharing misinformation to support their preconceived notions. Liberals do it too, and at levels approaching their ideological counterparts. The Green Party’s Dr. Jill Stein is literally running a third party campaign based on this fact.)
All this because, as a rule, human beings are incredibly and profoundly stupid. Just talk to one and that should become clear. And the election is only making things worse. Partisanship quashes the drive to scrutinize what you see. So Facebook has been turned into a battlefield where ignorance and misinformation are the weapons.
In other words, if Facebook wanted a utopia, they picked the worst time and environment to engineer one. If ever there were a moment to have someone with a brain serve as a watchman of the gate, this would be it.
Ironically, Facebook’s original concept had it right. The team of editors used a list of reputable news organizations to decide what made the Trending section. They ran afoul of conservatives because they refused to entertain Young Cons and Breitbart as legitimate news sources, but the quality of what made it into circulation was leagues better precisely because they ignored sites like that.
Here’s that said more articulately:
“Machines think in black and white,” said Mandy Jenkins, head of news at Storyful, which specialises in verifying and distributing social news. “I don’t think verification can be automated yet. What something means to be real and verified is not black and white.
“A judgement call has to happen. It’s about asking questions and seeing how a story adds up against other facts we know. What is the background of the source or site? Who is the person who wrote this story? Where does it come from? These are too many questions for a robot to answer on its own.”
Their issue wasn’t the way they approached newsworthiness, it was that they pretended it was objective, when in reality, objectivity is partisanship. Admitting that is the first step. After all, war is peace, innit?
Fire the robots. Bring back the dance party-loving, vodka-drinking Millennials who once separated us from the bullshit our aunts want us to see.