The biggest social media news of the week was “The Facebook Files,” a selection of internal documents revealing various investigations into the societal impacts of The Social Network, as reported by The Wall Street Journal.
The full set of Facebook files are available here and are worth reading for anyone interested in the impacts of social media at large, but in summary, the key findings from the reports are:
Facebook has implemented a system that subjects high-level users to a different review process than regular users Studies commissioned by Facebook have repeatedly shown that Instagram can have adverse effects on mental health users. platform angst, division in fact heightened Facebook is not doing enough to address potential damage it is causing in developing countries Vaccine campaigners have used Facebook to sow doubt and spread fear over the deployment of the COVID-19 vaccine
None of these revelations per se are known – anyone who has researched Facebook and its algorithms would be aware of the damage it can and has done over time, and Facebook itself has said it is addressing all these elements, and develop its tools based on its internal findings.
But what’s interesting about the Facebook files is the revelation of what Facebook itself actually knows and what its own data has shown regarding these impacts, which also suggests it might be doing. more to fix it.
Is he hesitating due to concerns about business impacts? This is the result of the WSJ investigation, that Facebook knows it causes widespread societal damage and amplifies negative elements, but it has been slow to act because it could hurt usage.
For example, according to the leaked documents, Facebook implemented its update to the ‘Friends and Family’ newsfeed algorithm in 2018 to boost engagement among users and reduce political discussions, which had become an increasingly conflicting element in the application. Facebook did this by awarding points for different types of engagement with posts.
As you can see in this preview, likes received 1 point each, other types of reactions received 5 points, as well as re-shares, while comments generated a much higher value, “significant” comments. earning 30 points (insignificant comments were worth 15 points). The higher the total value of each post, the more likely it is to have greater reach, as Facebook used this score to determine increased relevance between connections.
The idea was that it would prompt more discussion, but as you can imagine, the update instead prompted more editors and media outlets to share increasingly confrontational and emotionally charged posts, so to elicit more comments and reactions; and get higher share scores for their content. Likes were no longer the main driver, the change in Facebook made comments and reactions (like “Angry”) much more valuable, so sparking discussion on political trends became more important and exposed more users to this content in their feeds.
Which highlights another of Facebook’s fundamental problems, which is that it amplifies exposure to political views that you may never have known. You may not have, for example, the faintest idea that your former colleague is also a flat earth conspiracy theorist, but Facebook shows it to you, which inevitably pushes each person more for or against each problem. , essentially getting more people to take sides. .
Facebook knew this was happening, that the change was causing increased division and argument, its internal research showed. But did he backtrack on his decision?
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg once again resisted calls to change course with the algorithm, according to the WSJ, as the update drew more comments, responding to a longer-term decline in the engagement in the application.
Given that Facebook is used by some 2.9 billion people and arguably has the greatest influence of any platform in history, information like this is of major concern as it suggests that Facebook has actively taken business decisions on issues related to societal damage. Which, again, isn’t a major surprise – Facebook is, after all, a lucrative business. But the platform’s influence and power in guiding real-world trends is too great to ignore such impacts – and that’s just one of the examples highlighted in the WSJ reports.
Other revelations concern the impact of Instagram on young users:
“32% of teenage girls said when they felt bad about themselves, Instagram made them feel worse […] Teens blame Instagram for increased rates of anxiety and depression. This reaction was spontaneous and consistent across all groups. “
Instagram does more to provide more protection and support over time, but again, the impact, the actual effect here is significant.
Then there’s how the platform influences people’s responses to key news events, like, for example, the rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine.
“41% of comments on English publications about vaccines were likely to discourage vaccinations. Users were seeing comments on vaccine-related posts 775 million times a day, and Facebook researchers were concerned that the large proportion of negative comments could influence perceptions of the vaccine’s safety.
Unlike most other businesses, Facebook’s decisions can dramatically alter public perception and cause real damage, on a massive scale.
Again we know it, but now we also know Facebook knows it too.
The concern, going forward, is how it will act to remedy it, and whether the approach it has taken so far, in striving to keep such disclosures from the public, and even leaving harmful changes in place to promote its business interests, will be how it continues to operate.
We have no idea how Facebook works because it is not a public service. But at the same time, it really is. Some 70% of Americans now rely on the platform for news content and, as this information shows, it has become a key source of influence in many ways.
But at the same time, Facebook is a business. His intention is to make money, and this will always play a key role in his thinking.
Is this a sustainable way forward for such a massive platform, especially as it continues to expand into new developing regions and more immersive technologies?
Facebook files raise key questions, for which we do not yet have real answers.
You can read the entire Wall Street Journal “Facebook Files” series here.