Facebook’s Orwellian News Feed “tweak”
By SETH J. FRANTZMAN
“what we’re talking about is a ranking change where we’re trying to focus or trying to look at how we might help — or use ranking to help people become closer together, connect people more,” Adam Mosseri, Facebook’s vice-president in charge of newsfeed told Wired.
Facebook’s newsfeed is a victim of its own success, it got people to run, fish-like, after clicks and likes and video, and now it wants to steer them back to other types of “meaningful” interactions
This is the latest “tweak” to how billions of people see what they see on Facebook’s newsfeed, which is primarily how they see and share information. If you read the full interview a lot of it is clothed in generalizations. “So we’re going to focus more on that, and less on how much time people spend on Facebook and on newsfeed, and less on even how much they share directly.” They want content that leads to “meaningful interactions.” You’ll get “more friend content and family content. There will also be more group content.” Facebook says this “tweak” is not actually a “tweak” at all, but something bigger, something more, well, Orwellian. Facebook has decided that “Comments are more valuable than Likes.” Therefore content that is shared and talked about more will receive more “tailwind.”
Facebook says that it cares “about trying to make sure that the time people spend on our platform is time well spent.” This means they have decided that video is less important, all of a sudden, because it is a “passive” experience. Facebook has also been dealing with attempts to tamp down on “fake news.” It also says that “clickbait gets people to click on things that they don’t actually want to see.” So Mosseri says “False news caught us off guard. We had worked on it, we’d certainly even proactively announced some work to reduce the prevalence of hoaxes.” There is a lot worth reading in this latest interview, but in general it confirms what we already knew:
You have little to no control over what you see on Facebook.
Over the years we’ve gotten used to this. After all, you choose to use Facebook. You could use Twitter or Instagram or just go to the newsstand to get a newspaper. The problem is that Facebook has now become the more powerful newsstand in the world. It hasn’t just replaced the old style news section of a bookstore or newsstand. Up to two-thirds of Americans are getting some of their news from social media. Among younger people those numbers are higher. Eventually most people will be getting their news primarily through these platforms, as opposed to going to individual sites. That means publishers of information are filtered through Facebook and other platforms. It becomes one of the primary way that journalists and others, such as politicians communicate with the public.
So what we’re talking about is the equivalent of almost all the newsstands in the world being owned by several corporations. If that had been the case in the 1980s, before social media, imagine the power these organizations have if they “tweak” what is at those newsstands. It marks a fundamental change in what people might see at those newsstands. If the man at the newsstand said that he had moved some newspapers and magazines to the back because he wants you to have a more “meaningful” day, that sounds quite Orwellian. What if the public doesn’t want him deciding what is “meaningful.” For years large markets in the US, for instance, put tabloid publications near the checkout, usually alongside magazines popular with women. They could have tweaked that. Put more hard news by the checkout and decided the “false news” had no place there.
It’s entirely natural that an organization like Facebook seeks to profit as well. So it has had many ways of tweaking which content people see. Valuing “likes” one moment and shares the next. This has encouraged those who want their content in front of people to find ways to exploit the system. When video was prized, many providers moved to video. When clickbait was prized, i.e “more clicks” then content ran to get clicks with bizarre and false or misleading headlines. Facebook and other social media has thus had a huge influence already on how we get and read news. It has transformed us into a globalized community of fish, always running after the latest thing before we lose interest and move on. It has transformed the 24 hour news cycle and media waves. In some ways Facebook is thus a victim of its own “tweaks.” It tweaked people into clicks and likes and now wants to untweak. Fake news is also a derivative of the social media empires. And now they claim to be fighting against the very thing they helped create.
What we are left with is a very Orwellian super-media that has unprecedented control over what we see and read. And it doesn’t have a lot of competition.