I wrote this piece back in July 2019. Disinformation amplified by Facebook’s News Feed algorithm and it’s policies continues to be a grave issue.
WHY IS FACEBOOK CONTROLLING ME NEWS FEED?
A while back I noticed that my Facebook News Feed had changed completely. I was getting updates from news sites and other pages but very few updates from “friends” i.e. people. Rather exasperated, after trying to follow Facebook suggestions to gain control over the feed and resoundingly failing, I complained to Facebook. Several times. Only to get standard cookie cutter responses. Their replies boiled down to this — there is no problem at all and Facebook offers enough tools for users to control your feed. I tried the tools that Facebook recommended — choosing who I wanted to prioritize in my feed and despite that cumbersome step of going through close to a thousand “friends”, my feed still seemed to be dominated by pages and groups rather than “friends’” posts. So I took this project to the next level.
Each time I saw a post from a page I followed but didn’t want on my News Feed, I applied the Facebook setting “Snooze XYZ for 30 Days” to it. I figured Facebook’s brilliant (and I use this term sarcastically) algorithm would pick up on my preferences and alter my feed accordingly. That didn’t happen. Here’s what did.
Once the 30 days were over, all those pages were back on my News Feed. And they weren’t just back, they were back with a vengeance. Multiple posts from each page where there used to be only one or two before the snooze. In my naïveté, I thought maybe it will take a few tries before the algorithm learns my preferences so I followed the same process again. And again. And again. And again. For almost an entire year I kept this up. And each time the result would be the same. Then I noticed another curious thing.
In addition to these pages, my feed started to include posts from people who I didn’t interact with on Facebook or any other social media or email platform. I was quite puzzled. How is it I wondered that Facebook’s brilliant (and again I use this term sarcastically) algorithm is getting my profile and preferences so wrong. This grievance too I took to Facebook’s unhelpful Help tool and again the responses were as unhelpful as my previous encounters with them. So I decided to try an experiment.
I randomly selected a few people and a few pages and snoozed them for thirty days. In every single instance the snoozed person and page came back on my feed with what I call Extreme Visibility once the snooze period was over. And this happened without fail over what feels like a decade but is probably only just a year. The result of all this was that I started spending an inordinate amount of time thinking about the Facebook algorithms and in general other algorithms and other recommendation engines (I’m looking at you Netflix, Amazon and You Tube). And it seemed I wasn’t the only one.
Pondering on algorithms seemed to be in the zeitgeist and minds greater and definitely more respected than mine were pointing out the kind of world we would be living in and of course all the dangers of opinion echo chambers and radicalization that result from people walking down the ideological roadmaps laid out for them by these algorithms. All of this has got me thinking.
Why are algorithms that force their selection on us the only option for us as digital users? Why can’t Facebook give us the option of either having their algorithm chosen News Feed or having one that the user entirely controlled. For instance, what if Facebook gave us options for News Feed that we could toggle back and forth between. What would that world be like where Facebook gave me and you and everyone we know (that is everyone who is still on Facebook) the following News Feed options:
- A completely unfiltered News Feed where anything that anyone you follow or are friends with shows up chronologically
- A pages News Feed — which only has posts from the pages and groups you follow not ordered by Facebook’s AI but everything posted by chronologically as the pages.
- A friends News Feed — which only has posts from friends. Again not selected or ordered by Facebook but posts show up in this feed chronologically as people post them.
- A favorites News Feed — which allows you to select friends, groups and pages as favourites and shows all posts from them as those are posted. Or as my open-source loving, Linus fan, software programmer brother calls it — a custom News Feed that you can curate yourself.
- A Facebook controlled News Feed — which is the page that is generated through Facebook’s algorithms. And Facebook can give it a cool marketing name like Recommendations, Trending or you know Taurus!
Imagine being able to toggle back and forth between these and pick the News Feed stream you’d like to be on. Maybe there is even a world where there is a free and subscription (ad-free) version of Facebook. Where Facebook is a socially responsible company and possibly not the megalith built on our data. Then imagine a world where You Tube gives you the option of not seeing any recommendations and you do not stay up till four am watching clips of Graham Norton’s show (been there done that). Then imagine a world where Netflix does not frustrate you with their carousel and Amazon lets you enter specific and broader search criteria.
We don’t have to accept our life of ideas and media and goods consumption has to be controlled by algorithms. This is a dangerous place to be. For the sake of our own sanity and mental well-being, and for the sake of a world where radicalization is not the first option of lonely misfits, we have to reframe this conversation on our terms. We have the right to control what we see and buy. We have a right to at least have the option to not be controlled by AI.