Why Facebook’s Newsfeed needs a radical rethink
Facebook has become a political debating platform — but it lacks tools to facilitate political debates.
Facebook has become the synonym of the ‘filter bubble’ and the rise of a post-truth political discourse. The social media giant has become known for the distribution of fake news, lies and propaganda. While it is difficult to assess the real influence of Facebook in this context, it is a fact that many people consume and debate political news on Facebook. Eli Pariser (the author of ‘The Filter Bubble’) has started a brainstorming exercise on how Facebook should deal with fake news. John Borthwick and Jeff Jarvis offer a range of useful ideas here. And even Mark Zuckerberg wants to develop new technological solutions to identify fake news.
While there are many interesting ideas — new editorial roles, tools for better verification processes, new algorithms that identify fake news or ideas how news items could be displayed in a more balanced manner — all of those contributions seem to miss a key point:
Facebook is now a political debating platform.
But Facebook is not designed as a political debating platform. On the contrary, Facebook has become a catch-all social network. And it effectively offers only one main product: the Newsfeed. Over the years, the algorithm may have changed but the basics remained the same. It does not matter whether I look at holiday pictures of friends, or debate politics. Everything happens in the Newsfeed.
Facebook is one size fits all: random posts of friends, updates of organisations I follow, photos, news, status updates — all ranked according to a secret algorithm that favours ‘engagement’ with the aim to drive advertising revenue.
Facebook’s Newsfeed needs a radical redesign
Developing new technology to identify and filter out fake news may cure some of the symptoms but it will not address the core problem: We don’t seem to be able to have a meaningful political debate on Facebook.
Dealing with fake news is not a question of technology. It is a design challenge. Facebook needs to rethink the Newsfeed and adapt to its new role as a political debating platform.
Here is an uncomfortable thought: On an average day most people may spend more time to decide what coffee to pick in a coffee shop than thinking about politics. We seem to think that politics is entertainment. We consume political news like we consume House of Cards or Game of Thrones. We treat it like a TV show. We are not part of it — our role is to watch and be entertained. We skim over some of the headlines in our Facebook feed and laugh at the gaffes of politicians. We like or share a few posts that correspond to our belief systems and think that makes us look smart among our friends. Facebook gives us our dose of daily political entertainment.
But is this how we want do deal with politics on Facebook? Or can Facebook reinvent how we talk about politics and facilitate a new way to participate in meaningful political debates?
Facebook, make debating politics great again!
To make debating politics great again Facebook must accept that it faces a huge design challenge. It must question its main product — the Newsfeed. The company needs to realise that millions of people rely on the Newsfeed for their political news. The Newsfeed shapes our political opinions. It is as simple as that. But it is also an opportunity for Facebook to reinvent how we consume and engage with politics.
If this is a design challenge, how would one go about it? First, we would need to understand the problem. How do people use Facebook to engage with politics (I guess we have a pretty good idea). The second step would be a more difficult one. We need to imagine how Facebook could look like as a political debating platform. Is there a way to redesign Facebook that would facilitate a debate that is worthy of its name? What new tools need to be developed? Do we need the Newsfeed in its current form or would it make more sense to split social and political updates?
Facebook could learn from all those (arguably small) debating platforms what works and what doesn’t. There is a huge community out there that knows how to design and run platforms for meaningful debate. Now it would be the time for Facebook to reach out to this community and jointly develop a new way to debate politics online.
Today, Facebook is a platform that facilitates ‘political entertainment consumption’. Instead it could become a real political debating platform.