Earlier this month, Facebook released a 23-second commercial, advertising new curating features of the News Feed.
But, they made the mistake of casting a dude in a turban as a spokesperson. Within hours, the comment thread was full of angry, racist replies. People were furious at Facebook for allowing a “terrorist” into their living rooms:
The ironic thing, though, is that Mr. Vishavjit Singh was actually telling people that Facebook was preparing technology that would keep “rag heads” off their pages, forever. If they could get over the fact that a man in a turban was delivering the message, they would realize that twelve seconds into the ad, Singh says:
“The more you like things, and share things — that influences what comes back at you. My News Feed is changing… I get to see information that I feel like, yeah, this what I would like to see.”
That is, Facebook has been developing algorithms that, based on your personal tastes, will hide things that you find unpleasant or disagreeable. Even if those “things” are people.
Over the past few weeks, we’ve seen a backlash of anger about unpleasant news. There are tons of people — most of them white — who are angry at having to hear about Ferguson, or Eric Garner, or racism. You’ve probably seen them in your Facebook feeds, complaining that black people would dare to talk about anything other than pumpkin spice lattes.
Add this to the fact that we know that white people’s social networks tend to be composed almost entirely of other white people.
So, if the Facebook News Feed works as promised, it’s pretty reasonable to assume that the next time some colored kid gets killed in the street, or the US military sexually assaults or tortures someone, these angry people won’t have to hear about it. Instead, their Facebook will be full of normal Americans only.
maybe it’s unfair to blame the angry people that called Singh a ‘sand nigger’, a ‘raghead’, and a ‘terrorist’. After all, I don’t remember my school curriculum having any serious units on Sikhs, or Islam, or making any special effort to make sure that we knew that Sikhs are not Muslims, and that Muslims are not terrorists.
This is where we would hope that the Internet would come in. After all, that’s the promise of the digital age, isn’t it? Unlimited access to a sea of information. Anyone can learn anything. Underfunded schools are a moot point, because everyone can pull themselves up by their bootstraps with a wireless connection, and fix any stubborn points of ignorance they might have — whether that be advanced algebra or racism.
That’s the line we were sold, anyway. But I think in all of our excitement about the promises of technology, we forgot one important point:
There are some things that we don’t want to know.
A decade ago, if you wanted to get a ‘conservative’ or ‘liberal’ perspective on things, you had to at least make the effort to flip the channel to Fox or MSNBC.
But in the past few years, this has changed. I get all of my news from Facebook, and I suspect that most people born post-1980 do the same. I also curate my news feed — for me, Candy Crush, baby pictures, and basketball scores are uninteresting, and people that post that stuff get muted.
For too many of us, news of dead black children is uninteresting. So people that post that stuff get muted.
And now, Facebook is doing all of this racial curation for us — automatically.
That’s why watching the original thread in which the racist comments were posted is so awkward. It’s like Facebook is waging an internal war in public to make itself look good.
On one side, we have Facebook’s hundreds of engineers, who have come up with some rather ingenious algorithms to prevent us from having to learn anything about our neighbors. And on the other side, a lone Facebook employee named Jenny is struggling to delete comments by the very people who will most appreciate this new functionality.
Of course, Jenny, or whoever replaces her when she finally gets sick of this job, is being set up for failure. The engineers, and the algorithms, and the market demands, will win. The majority of Americans don’t want to be bothered with the struggles of the man and woman next door.
I don’t mean to badmouth Jenny. She’s just doing her job. But her work is pointless. There are really only two ways to stop brown people from being attacked: either we
- deal with the initial discomfort of learning about our friends, or we
- keep ignoring them, and pretending that they don’t exist.
But Facebook is not in the business of educating people, nor is it in the business of making people uncomfortable. It’s in the business of, well, business.
So, for the time being, it looks like ignorance is the only option.
talk to me: @dexdigi
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