With Facebook’s newsfeed, the real problem isn’t fake news –– it’s how it makes us angry by design. There might be some way around this.
It is important to tell the truth: I cannot know your feelings as much as I want to. These words are broadcast and they are weaker for it. Depending on where you sit, the past few days might have brought a surprising sigh of relief after a hateful and fretful year, or they might have brought you (as I must say they did me) a surprising and hateful extension of those fretful, fretful feelings. But whether the results came as a consolation or not, or even if they had tipped by one state in the other direction, every American should be saddened by the divided look of the electoral map ––
–– and at how the people in these red and blue states only appear united by their intensity of ill-feeling: those intensely sad, intensely angry, intensely frightened, intensely pessimistic, and, when telling the truth, those intensely tired of feeling this way.
In both the dividing of spoils and the opinion page post-mortem, many have pointed fingers at Facebook for its power to influence or, as Trump himself put it flatly, for the “power…[to] help me win.” Every candidate –– ‘major’ party, third-party, presidential election and primary –– found persuasion in hundreds of millions of dollars of outright ad buys, in ads others purchased on their behalf, in incalculably valuable earned media (that’s direct chit chat), and in the even more incalculably valuable, endlessly partisan, endlessly embittering, endlessly endless feed where 44% of Americans got their news. Or ‘news’.
While some of the above could apply to other past media monopolies, today’s technology has brought us something novel and endocrine in the algorithmically personalised feed. Alongside scuba diving photos of someone you are terrifically indifferent about is a high-low enjambment of shared stories from established newspapers, from random people (maybe this), and from some very suspicious upstarts (look like the former, probably run by the latter). Everything appears to operate at the same level of legitimacy, give or take the stupidity of the reader, and certainly regardless of one paper’s fact-checkers and another’s talent with Photoshop. This complete lack of context, easily remedied in the UI, is one of the reasons why Buzzfeed managed to unearth a shockingly high amount of fake news from either side (unequally divided) of the political aisle. There is a real business there. For all the chatter about Russia’s influence on the election, there was very little on Macedonia’s –– and yet it was some usefully idiotic teenagers from the farm town of Veles who produced an outsized amount of the fabricated press and for no nobler reason than wanting some second-rate DJing kit. That real business, by the way, traditionally goes by the name ‘media’ although you won’t hear Facebook springing to use it.
Even news that isn’t necessarily fake but has a lean to it will sit on one side or another of Facebook’s algorithmic filter for the simple, democracy destroying reason that people make the mistake of having few friends who disagree with them and, plus, no one wants to hear it on a Monday anyways. No one chooses to live in a bubble but one draws around us nonetheless in a system that reduces most conversation to the wordless assent of a ‘like’. It isn’t enough that we run surveillance on ourselves for the convenience of sharing holiday snaps; now we go one further and spread and self-medicate ourselves with propaganda of our own unconscious choosing. Those stories’ power is the more angry they make us the more we want to share that anger amongst our loved ones. Viral content spreads virulently.
[If it isn’t Monday, and you feel particularly fortified, the graphics team at the WSJ has prepared a fascinating side-by-side look at a red and blue feed. That so much of this is falsely equivalent is not the point. This is how someone sees their world.]
The only person who doesn’t claim to be impressed by Facebook’s power is its co-founder and CEO. In a mea bare minima culpa, Mark Zuckerberg #sorrynotsorrily asserted that “99% of what people see [on FB] is authentic.” As this is so clearly at odds with, well, definitely a quick scroll down my own feed, it seems that Zuckerberg has either bundled all the information on his site in with news, or used the word ‘authentic’ in a weaselly way, or is just pushing out exactly the kind of unverifiably truthless content he claims to not see but which persuades nonetheless. Or maybe this does hold at a macro level; that just happens to be divorced from the marginal case that is Facebook’s precise appeal to marketer, politician, and human alike. Covering all bases, Zuckerberg says it all came out in the wash and that Facebook had no impact on the election regardless. If that last one is true –– and it is fair to now be completely confused as to where we stand on truth –– then the various campaign advertisers might as well start lining up for their refunds.
It is important to tell the truth: Zuckerberg is lying. He is back-pedalling because billionaires worry about their possessions as much as the next man, and this man is kept awake at night by the twin fears of an unlikely user exodus and the far likelier plague of government regulation. Leaks to Gizmodo describe an internal team dedicated to cracking down on fake news but which was too worried about a Republican backlash to do anything about it. There are philosophical points to hide behind — is anything objectively true — but the choice to do nothing was made at a far baser, bottom dollar level. When an algorithm does all the sorting then Facebook can plausibly deny they are a media company. They can also deny any of the moral and regulatory responsibility that comes with that as, gladiatorially, they simply give the people what they want. Rather, Facebook chose to remain agnostic for the simple reason that it is expensive and hard to care without risking something. And so Zuckerberg has presided over the dumbing down of an entire nation –– at a scale no for-profit donation to education charities could easily fix –– and for little more than the macro version of what those Macedonian kids wanted: cooler toys. What should one expect from a broker who ‘charges’ you for access to your own friends.
From a business perspective and an ethical one, the time for a principled stand was before the election. Facebook has begun tackling fake news in its extended ad network, courageously downplaying the offending stories so they only collect a few hundred thousand views at best. But perhaps FB, and Google and Twitter will fix fake news in its entirely. There are economic reasons to remain pessimistic. What certainly won’t change are the terms and conditions that cause people to share and engage with content in volumes that keep Facebook happy. Wrath here, lust and envy on Instagram, sloth across the board. (It is next to impossible to sell ad inventory across virtues like prudence, temperance, courage, or love. Those are Go Outside feelings.) The system is a form of misery, endless as its feed. As the company found in its wonderfully unethical mood manipulation experiements, and as the troll has known for quite some time, anger goes viral and angry people click more. And clicks equal cash.
We know this. Whether it broke through your filter or comes from a niggling sense from within, one look at the electoral college and the week’s events make it clear that the old way only leaves a population unhealthy, tired, and ignorant of large parts of its own self. But: The newsfeed is a constantly moving vehicle and it is very hard to jump off without some injuries. I want to leave you with a few suggestions as to how to tuck and roll into something that might be, I believe, worth trying.
- To use an expression that might be substantially less metaphorical in a few months’ time, why not go nuclear: Just quit. While Facebook makes this technically difficult, and while its various products might sit very close to the bone of your life, know this is an option to regain what you think you’ve lost or to end what you wish to end. Depending on how you use the word, your friends will stick with you.
- Should you stay or should you go, get your real friends’ email or mailing addresses and write them real emails or letters. The format forces you to put thought and emotion into them, and you tend to get thought and emotion back. As the cost of photos is astounding, only the most sociopathic will send you pictures of their breakfast.
- What you won’t get is memes. This is good. However you choose to communicate, communicate your own thoughts (you can quote me on that). I have written elsewhere how some of our present mood is the result of a startlingly unfunny failure of comedy; at a basic level, you cannot know what you are thinking until you get those thoughts out of you. Some ideas seem ludicrous when they stare back at you from a piece of paper. Attend to those.
- Facebook feeds your brain’s reptilian desire for surprise and novelty. Knowing that it is impossible to compromise with a reptile, continue to take your news in an aggregated dose but one that surprises and challenges and inspires you with bright ideas and a far wider emotional repertoire. Consider Dave Pell’s excellent NextDraft, Jason Kottke’s gravity-defying Kottke.org, or the always illuminating (and closer to home geographically) The Browser’s The Browser. My life is better for visiting them throughout the day. (I can only profess ignorance here as always, and should you have a site or service that you love, especially if you feel it’s from a different viewpoint, selfishly I would love to read it and promise to update this in time.)
- If you want to go to the source, go to a real news outlet. Support it. With money. And read wider. There is no point replacing one bubble with another. We seek out confirmation bias in all aspects of life. That isn’t to say we should give equal consideration to that one scientist out of a hundred who believes dinosaurs were a hoax; it is to say one would find something worthwhile in seeking out the primary sources that somehow inspire people to find this fiction compelling.
- If you doubt a source, go to Snopes.com. Do it for your own curiosity, or for others. Facebook suggests it buries articles that are independently fact checked by its users in the (proof dinosaurs exist) comments section.
- Tread softly with this. So much of the antipathy here stems from a misunderstanding: you aren’t treading on a person’s toes when you dispute their version of the truth, you are often treading on their dreams.
- What sources? You’ll find your own. If they are angry about the same thing all the time then they aren’t good for you and they probably aren’t real news anyhow. I can’t really single any out without reinforcing some of the bias I hope to extinguish. I must say though that I grew up with the BBC and my only criticism is it is almost theatrically objective.
- If staying put on Facebook, consider these desktop (Safari) browser extensions that strip out the Newsfeed, get rid of any mention of politics, or remove Facebook’s ads altogether even as they try to track you across the broader web. Do whatever makes you happy. Now, there is an argument that if you use a service you should pay for it; there is a counterargument that FB’s tracking is in bad faith, especially as it tracks non-users. Do these offset? I leave this with you and your conscience.
- Hold Facebook accountable by giving ProPublica a cheeky glimpse at your FB ad data. ProPublica broke an unrelated but upsetting story on how, in violation of the Fair Housing Act, Facebook allowed advertisers to exclude certain ethnicities from housing ads. Like The Guardian, they are another independent non-profit source of journalism that is well worth supporting.
- Make your data less accurate — and less valuable. Consider liking the New Brunswick Glove Museum, Latvia’s entrant in this year’s Eurovision, or the advertiser’s sportsman-of-choice Tom Brady. This will largely be for your own pleasure (possibly Tom’s) but an important way to attend to the pressures of our new world is doing some deflating of your own.
- Step outside the bubble. First, importantly, tell your friends that you are going to start ‘liking’ things you don’t actually like or even approve of. Then like those things. Then really talk and really listen, with civility and attention, to what people who don’t already agree with you have to say. Then be surprised, and leave both parties better for it. In the off-chance one encounters a bigot particularly ennobled by the anonymity of the internet, remember that it is far more irritating for the small or literal-minded to see a real person where a stereotype exists.
When a man is on a ledge it is the human voice that helps him step down. Preserve your sanity. Facebook has little interest in your feeling good. It is for you to cultivate that. But that emotion is also contagious, be generous with it, and there is no better way to share it than in person. Travel with it to places you don’t fully understand and that sit outside your bubble. Fake news has to resemble the truth to be believed, and Zuckerberg built his apology around the platitude that most people are good. When they are allowed step away from some of their worst feelings, yes, I believe that to be deeply true. (I believe that to be true. Hm.) The United States is not ordained by any force greater than the mood of the people in it at any given moment. The internet’s early promise to bring these people closer together has clearly been replaced by a horrorshow opposite. And so, if nostalgia must be the mood, perhaps let’s end and begin with a return to that old fullness of feelings. To seeing people in person.