Let us say I love conspiracy theories surrounding Aliens. I am scrolling through Facebook and I see an article mentioning the existence of aliens and I click on it. Facebook will make a note that this is something that generated “Engagement”. Then it will over a course of time show me another and if I click it again, their algorithm gets reinforced. The reason I click these links is that I hope Aliens exist
As this reinforcement takes place, Facebook algorithms will work hard to surface more such content and posts so that I would click. Then they will show me an ad to a site that talks about aliens. Facebook needs engagement, it needs me to spend more time on their site. Why? The more time I spend on their site, there is an increased probability that I might interact with an ad which in turn generates revenue. Facebook at the end of it all is a business. When you click anything that is sponsored they make money.
Slowly and steadily my feed is filled with news and posts of UFO theory and alien visitations. Facebook would say they are just catering to my interest. Yes, they are. But also they are suppressing other posts which may tell me correctly that there are no UFOs out there. Because their algorithm knows that does not generate “engagement”
Slowly and steadily I will end up in an echo chamber where it feels like there something Alien happening every day and all the people around me are delusional and ignorant. What started as HOPE has slowly become a REALITY.
What people hope for is not always positive, sometimes they are required to fall in line with what is right according to society.
I hope that I am not required to work and just paid money that the government appropriated from the rich. Society determines that there would be no incentive left for people to work hard and succeed if this was the case. So I fall in line. What if my Facebook feed kept reinforcing my thoughts and said it was right? Would I be willing to raise a voice for it? Fight for it? Kill for it?
Facebook and Freedom of Speech
Mark Zuckerberg said Facebook cannot be the arbiter of truth. True. But it cannot be a peddler of lies either.
Which is what these algorithms have made it become. Let us look at this another way. I run events for a living. I use Facebook to broadcast these events to a large number of people who follow me. I have 5000 friends on Facebook and normally if I post something all 5000 should be able to see it. I would be surprised if even 100 see this post. Why? Algorithms limit the distribution based on “interest”. Also if broadcasting was that easy who would buy ads?
There is an argument to be made here that Facebook is suppressing the “freedom of speech” which most democratic constitutions guarantee. You are not letting me broadcast to all the people I am connected to. As a platform, I suppose it is the least you should be able to do. The pursuit of money has meant that they are culling freedom of speech. This has resulted in companies like Mighty Networks and Circle which are building social networks so you would be able to talk to your followers.
Facebook the Arbiter
Now, since Facebook is determining what we can see, they are already playing an arbiter. An arbiter of interest that would like to think. But as can be seen from the example above, you can push someone down the wrong rabbit hole very quickly in the process.
If a friend was to send you a message on WhatsApp, and Facebook decided not to show it because it is not in alignment with your interest or does not produce engagement would that be fine? No. But this happens every day and has been happening for the last 7 years on Facebook. Everyday!
As a platform, you have no business telling me what I should read and should not read. I have cultivated my friends because there are things that I like and hate about each of them. Let me hear what they have to say. Who the hell are you to determine what I get to see and what I do not?
So long as Facebook feeds are run by algorithms, they have taken upon themselves the responsibility to the arbiter. If you have taken up that responsibility at your own volition so that you make money, at least do a good job of it. Or stop doing it altogether and remove your algorithms. It has to be one way or the other.
You cannot have the cake and eat it too!