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Facebook’s Self-Deception

Mark Zuckerberg informed us a few days ago that he would be rewiring our information landscape. Posts from friends and family move up in the rankings; news and media fall off. He made a few oblique references as to why and assured us in an insipid 533-word blog post that the changes would mean that the 50 minutes users spend on the platform each day would be “time well spent.”

Anyone who has been even partially sentient over the past few years has noticed how we have become shrouded in our filter bubbles, secure like never before in the complacency of our convictions. This certainty in the righteousness of our own point of view makes us regard a neighbor with a yard sign the way a Capulet regards a Montague. It seems to me that we suddenly hate each other a whole lot more than we ever did before.

So it should come as no surprise that the place where filter bubbles are the thickest, where the self-satisfied certitude that comes from unchecked power is iron-clad, is at the headquarters of Facebook itself. This was brought home to me when I read an interview with the head of Facebook’s News Feed product, Adam Mosseri.

Mosseri, who has been at Facebook for nearly a decade (eons in Facebook time), was eager to explain to an interviewer why this change was rational, normal, good for humanity (the company counts one quarter of humanity as monthly active users). It was published it in near-verbatim format, laying bare just how removed from the rest of humanity Facebook management is.

I refined my outrage into five points Mosseri makes; they illustrate the degree to which Facebook executives live in a world of their own making and where the rest of us are expected to comply.

1. The changes are for our collective “well-being”

The most glaring assumption that jumps out of this interview (as well as official Facebook communiqués) is that we are all asked to swallow Facebook’s incredibly vague gauge of “well-being,” or “meaningful social interaction.” In fact, these terms are sometimes tossed about interchangeably. (Zuckerberg uses “well-being” three times in his post.)

Excerpt from interview on Stratechery.com.

In the excerpt above, Mosseri implies that Facebook is doing this for our own mental health, and that it’s based on extensive research. Interactions = good. Passively consuming content = bad. Aside from the disturbingly paternalistic assumptions therein, can I ask how Facebook defines well-being? Can they share their research with the public transparently? Mosseri’s answer: “We’ll certainly consider it…” (Facebook has a blog post that discusses a few of its conclusions here.)

To me, this strikes at the heart of the peril posed by Facebook: The platform has probably more power than any company has ever wielded over information (and perhaps even our well-being). And yet it engages in zero public debate about the changes it makes. It simply rolls them out. We are asked to buy Facebook’s version of meaningful, as in this Mosseri statement: “So if you and I had a back and forth conversation on a post from a Page, that would actually count as a meaningful social interaction.” Hence, it would get a higher rank in the algorithm, etc.

Is an exchange “meaningful”? I can think of plenty of Facebook exchanges that merely raised my blood pressure. These are sweeping categories. Facebook has placed itself as the imperious custodian of our well-being, but tells us nothing about how it cares for us. And do they care if it has side effects? Just ask independent journalists in Bolivia what happens when Facebook starts using them as guinea pigs in an experiment about their well-being: their audience drops, while the government’s ability to control public opinion increases. When they complain to Facebook, they get an automated reply email.

2. “This change actually has very little to do with false news…”

Mosseri actually said that, but that’s not as stunning as what came next: “I will say that the amount of attention on false news specifically and a number of other integrity issues, certainly caught us off guard in a number of ways and it’s certainly been something we’ve tried to respond responsibly [to].”

For more than a year, Facebook has been under scrutiny because there has been a flood of outright fake and misleading “news” coursing through its pipes. As studies have shown, people share fake news on Facebook, often more than the real stuff. The Pope endorsed Donald Trump?! That spreads on Facebook. People get pissed. When the senior leadership at Facebook says this caught them “off guard” I have to pick my jaw up off the floor. Inside the Facebook HQ, the filter bubble is thicker than a security blanket. They really believe that all they are doing is connecting people and fostering “meaningful interactions.” They are not playing Russian roulette with our democratic institutions or selling ads to people who want to burn Jews.

This filter bubble is so impenetrable that they believe one minute that they have the power to manipulate our mood (they do) and are shocked the next when they get blowback for allowing people to manipulate our politics.

Then the last part: it’s “something we’ve tried to respond responsibly [to].” No, Facebook, you have not. The only responsible response after these revelations would be a massive overhaul of your system and a transparent conversation with the public and Congress about how your algorithm works. Your response has been an under-funded effort to infuse fact-checking into the News Feed, and a 41% uptick in what you pay your lobbyists.

3. “Does the scrutiny accelerate the process? It’s really hard to say.”

Yes, it does and no, it’s not. This statement is in response to Thompson’s question about the criticism Facebook has received in the past year over its distribution of fake and misleading news and whether that has prompted the company to assume greater responsibility over what its users see. Mosseri’s full response is here:

Excerpt from interview on Stratechery.com

Do you think the revelations about years of sexual abuse, assault and downright rape in the workplace by powerful men (Harvey Weinstein, Matt Lauer, Charlie Rose, etc., etc.) have accelerated the conversation about women’s rights and equity in the workplace? I mean, it’s possible…

So let’s assume that Facebook continues to post $4.7 billion in net income each quarter and its stock rises another 40% percent over the next 12 months (market cap at this writing is $517 billion), and there is no public criticism about fake news, targeting voters, and so forth. Absent any external pressure, do you think that Zuckerberg and the rest of the boys in senior management (and Sheryl Sandberg) take it upon themselves to head to a sweat lodge to probe their souls about whether the way they are redrawing the map of our information economy is good for humanity? Sure, that’s likely.

4. Does Facebook have any responsibility toward media companies?

It’s a great question posed by Thompson. The answer confirms my worst fears. Mosseri’s initial response is anodyne enough: “I think we have a number of responsibilities.” News stories are important to people, he says. But then, just as quickly, he contorts himself into a pretzel to explain why it’s also not the case: “…news is a minority of the media content on Facebook, and media is a minority of the overall content in the News Feed.” Ergo, it’s not that big of a responsibility.

There are two major fallacies here. The first: If there is less quantity, then there is less importance. My five-year-old niece’s recent birthday was a big hit on Facebook, as I imagine many other birthdays were that day. So, that’s more important to the Facebook community (read: humanity) than the SNAFU alert sent to all the residents of Hawaii warning of an imminent missile attack? The numbers tell us it is.

The second fallacy: reporting, writing and editing a news story of any import takes time, resources and skill. Hence, there will be many fewer of them than there are birthday posts. So if it’s a numbers game, news loses. This is what I’d call self-serving math.

5. “…There’s understandably going to be a lot of anxiety…”

Here’s some more math: The Pew Research Center reports that 45% of Americans get news from Facebook, a percentage that has been increasing sharply. Why? Because that’s the product Facebook created. It designed itself for that.

As the algorithm tweaks fall into place, and news publishers stand by as their audience plummets. Mosseri concedes: “there’s understandably going to be a lot of anxiety … it’s always a set of trade offs, we do the best we can with the information at hand.” (You possess ALL the information, by the way.) These are not words of someone who sees the news media as partners but as pawns. A post is a post is a post.

That’s not how this company has operated. Since it burst on the scene, not all that many years ago, it has dangled carrot after carrot in front of news media. Do your headlines this way and you’ll be rewarded. Hey, pivot to video! No, try our Instant Articles product. Then, like Lucy yanking the football, it’s gone. Facebook has moved on.

The heart of the issue is that Facebook wields immense power and is subject to minimal accountability. Changes come when Zuckerberg decrees them. Yes, it’s a publicly traded company. Yes, Congress shall make no law…But the power is real and the accountability is not.

With all this heft, and all this research, Facebook seems to understand so little about the news it serves up. Take for example this notion that commenting or reacting to news is what makes news valuable. Yes, that’s true some of the time, but it’s also false some of the time. Sometimes we read the news to be informed. To catch up. To be better citizens.

Just because I didn’t share or like an article about climate change doesn’t mean that I don’t care about climate change. To treat the value of news purely through the lens of whether people have shared it or had “meaningful interactions” with other members of the Facebook “community” misses the value entirely. Sharing and commenting on every piece of news is actually part of the problem: It is what has thrust news and journalism into this hyper-partisan shithole we’re in right now.