The Saskatoon StarPhoenix by Katrina German 22 November 2016
“Every person I know was voting for Hillary! How did this happen?” The collective scream that rang out on Facebook immediately following the American election provided a troubling glimpse into the future.
The reason that “everyone you know” in the United States was voting for Hillary or else “Trump will win” is simple: Facebook algorithms.
Posing as a personal newspaper, Facebook is actually a highly sophisticated marketing platform whose mission is to sell marketing to its users. It accomplishes this effectively, posting a profit of $4 billion in 2015 with a base of 1.6 billion monthly active users.
Facebook’s goal is to keep you happy and returning to the site. Every time you click on an article or perform an action on the platform, it uses your data to construct an online picture of what types of content you will find most appealing.
Facebook trades on personal connections and the power of your friends to influence you.
If you are a feminist and start clicking on articles about the rise of a female president, the algorithm automatically starts showing you articles that your friends share about Hillary. Eventually, you won’t see posts that feature views different from yours, except for an occasional post that squeaks past Facebook’s filters.
Naturally, you will start to believe that everyone you know thinks the same as you. As it is rare to see an alternative opinion in your newsfeed, it feels that anyone who thinks differently from you is attacking your way of living, your people, your tribe.
A recent experience detailed in The Guardian newspaper asked people from different political beliefs to swap Facebook feeds. “Twelve people have shared a story with me about the Hillary Clinton bus dumping human waste into the sewer system,” said Trent Loos, a farmer and radio host from central Nebraska. “I never see positive stuff about Hillary Clinton. I didn’t know that existed.”
After reading a right-wing Facebook feed, Pam Tau Ling noted: “Everything that they are saying is bad, I fall under that category,” said the fourth-generation Chinese-American. “The hateful stuff: That’s me. They hate me and my community and what I stand for.”
Algorithms lead to polarization — black or white opinions, with little room for thoughtful discussions about grey.
“Members of a democratic public will not do well if they are unable to appreciate the views of their fellow citizens, or if they see one another as enemies or adversaries in some kind of war,” writes Cass R. Sunstein in Republic 2.0.
According to Pew Research, two-thirds of Facebook users get their news on the site — a figure that amounts to 44 per cent of the general population. It is clear that some large issues need to be resolved about the ways that Facebook data are being used to influence western democracy.
Mainstream media have started to focus on the number of fake news stories that trended on Facebook during the presidential election, as allowed by the algorithm. Facebook and Google both moved quickly to announce that they will create programs to weed out fake news stories in the future.
This is the least they can do. As a society we should expect more. There has always been an uneasy trust between the public and mainstream media, but as a new level of “super corporation” starts to control our news and influence our beliefs, it’s time to demand a minimum standard of integrity.
A great deal of damage has been done. Millions of people regarded fake news as real news. Millions are terrified of the future because their Facebook stream shows them only bleak news. Millions of people voted, whether for Clinton or for Donald Trump, on the basis of false information.
Let’s refuse to accept Mark Zuckerberg’s weak response of, “Personally, I think the idea that fake news on Facebook — it’s a very small amount of the content — influenced the election in any way as a pretty crazy idea.”
Through our clicks, we can influence the type of news that we are receiving on the platform. Through our posts, we can demand a more thoughtful approach to the ways that our technology platforms are delivering content. As individuals, we can welcome dialogue with people that think differently from us.
As citizens in a democracy, we need to demand a review of this system.
Katrina German is a Saskatoon-based technology entrepreneur and social media strategist.