Vicky Spratt | Deputy Editor | Monday, 12 December 2016

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Here's How Facebook Shaped 2016 (And Not In A Good Way)

The Debrief: How do you feel when you log in to Facebook these days?

illustration by Marina Esmeraldo

How do you feel when you open Facebook these days? A) eager to see what your friends, family and loved ones are up to? B) fearful that you will stumble across an infuriating status or toxic news story?

The room is always dark, illuminated only by the orange hue of my iPhone in night mode when I see it. It’s usually about 11 pm. I’m scrolling mindlessly and then, there it is. It gets stuck like a wasp buzzing around in my brain, stinging everything, reactivating my soporific synapses after they've shut down for the day and making it impossible to sleep. 

It can be the status of an immediate family member who was haphazardly sharing Britain First posts because they ‘didn’t know what it was’. It can be a former colleague who, it transpires, is now employed by Breitbart and enjoys politically posting on Facebook at all times of the day. 

I didn’t always dread logging in. I got Facebook in 2006, two years after it was founded. It was a pretty anodyne place. My feed consisted of long lost primary school friends, teachers and the extended families of now long gone ex-boyfriends sharing profound thoughts on work, life and hangovers. Fittingly banal for a social network which was conceived as a way of ranking women based on their hotness. 

Now Facebook is the world’s biggest and most powerful social media platform, with a membership creeping ever closer to 2 billion. It has outpaced Twitter and prehistoric predecessors like Bebo, Myspace, Friends Reunited, enabling knowledge sharing on a scale that we could only have imagined in sci-fi fiction as little as half a century ago.

Post Truth, Fake News

Only a few days after the US presidential election that saw Donald Trump win the Oxford English Dictionary named 'post-truth' as its international word of the year. It was fitting timing, following an election outcome which may or may not have been influenced by the proliferation of fake news on social media. 

Now, let's not pretend the politicisation of Facebook has been all bad. ‘Fuck 2016’, ‘Facebook ruined 2016’ etc. That would be too easy. Facebook and Twitter have been important tools for some of the most significant social movements of the last decade: the Arab Spring and Black Lives Matter particularly, but also the green movement and feminism more broadly. But, over time they became less about bringing us together and more about driving us apart. Twitter first with Facebook following shortly afterwards. Gone were the funny, pithy statuses of 2006, here to stay were rants and soapbox statuses scattered incongruously amongst people checking in at Heathrow Terminal 5 or announcing their smug blingy engagements. 

Facebook metamorphosed right before our eyes, evolving into a publishing platform on which media organisations (not all of them reputable) pumped out content for readers to share with one another while network members used statuses to air their views on current affairs. In 2013 Facebook rolled out an ‘unfollow’ button in an attempt to help users take back control over their feeds, but all of this came to a head this year with both the EU referendum and Hillary/Trump election. This year political organisations, essentially, used social media to spread propaganda. Leave EU and Nigel Farage’s ‘Breaking Point’ meme, anyone? While friends, family and perfect strangers went head to head in the comments. 

 In 2016 Facebook fuelled what will go down in history as two of the most divisive and personal Western elections since the birth of constitutional democracy. Online, friendships frayed, families fought and strangers abused one another. Everyone was an agitated overnight expert with a captive audience ready to be riled up, which publishers and politicians alike, capitalised on to push their own agenda. In real life, people on opposing sides of politics became more and more distant from each other. 

Facebook is now facing serious criticism, not only for the role it played in disseminating fake news but also for the way that simultaneously dividing us and reinforcing our biases has become part of its algorithm fabric. They have repeatedly said that they think this problem is being overstated. ‘We don’t think it swayed the election’ Mark Zuckerberg, the network’s CEO, said as he outlined measures that Facebook would take to make it easier to detect misinformation and report hoaxes and false stories in November. Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s COO, has also downplayed the seriousness of things, saying that the company didn’t think fake news and misinformation ‘swayed the election’ at the World Economic Forum in Davos earlier this month. 

However, in a move worthy of the Orwellian label 'doublethink' Facebook have now announced that they are looking to hire a news editor. This can't possibly have anything to do with concerns about Facebook's role in disseminating fake news now, can it? 

Filter Bubbles And Collapsed Contexts 

So, just how big is the problem? Where did things go wrong for social media, Facebook in particular? And, is there any hope that we can reclaim online spaces for the greater good?

Dr. Bernie Hogan is a research fellow at the Oxford Internet Institute, a department dedicated to the social science of the Internet. He explains that the problem with Facebook is twofold: ‘collapsed contexts’, which means that online, regardless of whether you are speaking only to one person, your potential audience is actually infinite and 'filter bubbles', which is the process by which Facebook shows you links and statuses based on what you have previously liked and are therefore likely to agree with. This was demonstrated brilliantly by the Wall Street Journal's 'Blue Feed, Red Feed' graphic.

Facebook, Bernie says, has become important in both our social and political lives, whether its founders like it or not. And, because of this, serious questions are being raised about its ethical responsibility to users. 

‘I think Facebook are still sticking to a great strategy’ Bernie says, ‘in that they are reacting to content rather than proactively trying to censor content.’ However, he concedes that this is not all they are doing, ‘as soon as Facebook start promoting content in the way they do with their top news then they effectively become a publisher.’ Because of the way it collates trending topics and pushes certain content, Facebook is now part aggregator part publisher. 

While he says that, in theory, it’s important that Facebook doesn’t censor, ‘I should be able to post something to my Facebook as long as it’s legal but the issue is that Facebook started promoting content’ Bernie notes that how Facebook deals with what we post and share is problematic: ‘they used an algorithm, and that algorithm was naïve. That was the problem and they have to own up to it using more than corporate doublespeak.’

The algorithm he speaks of has been heavily criticised. It anticipates our future behaviour based on our past behavior and instead of challenging our views it arguably, reinforces opinions we already hold and pushes us deeper into them. In August this year, Facebook responded to criticism by announcing that they were tweaking the algorithm to crack down on ‘clickbait’. That turned out to be like sticking a plaster on a broken leg.

What does Bernie make of the way that our newsfeeds have changed over time? ‘I think the conflation of news stories and the means by which I use Facebook to keep up with my personal network in the newsfeed is awful. I try to avoid it as much as possible now.’ When I first interviewed Bernie back in 2014 he was an avid defender and supporter of social media, so I’m surprised to hear that even he’s pulled back from online life. ‘I prefer spending more time with people in person and less time grazing Facebook’ he says, ‘I’m happier with that…I think we need to spend less time on the newsfeed.’ 

There’s disappointment in the way Bernie speaks about Facebook, I ask why? ‘I think Facebook could be more than a newsfeed but, unfortunately, it has conflated that which comes from professional sources and that which comes from our peers. I’m not normally expected to comment on a news story I read but I am expected to comment on the announcement of some important life event of my family or friends. That I am given the same opportunities to do both dilutes both.’

So is the problem that we are now using Facebook for, well, pretty much everything? 

‘Facebook could have been a more effective means for us to manage our relationships with our friends and family’ Bernie says but now ‘even their splash page confuses these things. It says “connect with friends in the world around you”. It’s conflating two separate things: your personal network and the wider world in the same space.’

‘I didn’t always feel this way’ Bernie tells me, ‘I think the newsfeed could be a good thing but it is irresponsible to assume that it is a legitimate substitute for an ostensibly neutral source of public news. The world is bigger than our personal networks, that’s why we have a representative democracy, that’s why we have what we consider a representative press.’ 

As Bernie sees it Facebook evolved beyond what it was initially designed to do. ‘Facebook, in my opinion, have squandered the social graph which they could have used to help people maintain their relationships’ he says. Why did they allow it to happen? Bernie explains that it was the result of greed and uncritical thinking in equal parts, ‘they merely used their platform to feed more content.’ 

The Technological Revolution 

Technology is meant to make our lives better, to solve problems and make things easier. If Facebook is becoming a toxic space, one which now poses more problems than it was originally meant to solve, is there any hope for it? Countless people have told me in recent weeks that they are spending less and less time on Facebook for the sake of their sanity. Surely this is not what Facebook want?

‘The more time you spend on Facebook the happier they are’ Bernie says, but, he says, they are confusing this with us being happy with how much time we spend on their site. He’s got a point here. When was the last time something you did or saw on Facebook genuinely made you happy? How often does that happen? And I don’t mean a puppy meme that made you feel good for 0.5 seconds before you moved on. 

Facebook has played a part in a ‘massive transformation’ in ‘how we understand our relationship to the world’ Bernie says but we shouldn’t uncritically allow that to take place solely in the hands of ‘young coders in San Francisco.’ Why are we letting them decided what is and isn’t a ‘good idea’ he says?

It’s not as simple as deleting Facebook. ‘We could reject that structure but unfortunately, they tied our friends and family to it’ Bernie says, but we should expect a platform which allows us to separate catching up with friends and family from seeing news and opinion. That is, effectively, what we do in real life. We choose what we want to talk about, read and watch and when. The newsfeed, on the other hand, has become a rolling stream of indiscriminate consciousness.  

In the early 2000s, we underwent a technological revolution on an unprecedented scale. In years to come people will look back on those as the years our lives changed forever: the advent of broadband, the smartphone, social media. We have become more connected to one another than ever before in some ways, but in others more disconnected and disjointed.

Bernie is right. We haven’t been ‘scrutinising’ the companies who drove that revolution. ‘People have to speak out, we cannot normalize this’ he says. ‘We cannot normalize a president who lies, a Brexit campaign that was based on misinformation and a means of getting news which does not distinguish between facts and lies.’ He warns that this is not longer about how to hide drunk pics from potential employees, this is ‘very real now’ he says. ‘All of us were a little complacent and all of us were a little acquiescent because [Facebook] provided some good ideas and we had hope but, right now, I am quite concerned that what we’re not doing is finding ways to find common ground with one another, to find solidarity, to make love easier.’ Instead, he says, ‘‘we are finding ways to make products easier to find, to make enemies easier to find and to be self-congratulatory. That is a series of values that can be promoted by technology. Technology is not neutral and never was, we shouldn’t treat it that way.’

What could have been a great equalizer has turned into something more sinister, quietly becoming one of the most polarizing forces in society. On Facebook, the world has been divided up into what we like and what we don’t, with little space for the grey area in between which accounts for most of our lives.

So far it doesn’t feel like any of the measures the network has introduced are sufficient; you can’t just unfollow people you disagree with and ignore their views any more than you can close your eyes and ears and pretend that Brexit isn’t happening. We shouldn't only be confronted by information which we're likely to agree with uncritically any more than we should constantly be consuming content combatively. One is a recipe for complacency and the other exasperated exhaustion. 

As users, we should be questioning the platform. We can send its designers and curators the ultimate message if we aren’t happy by taking our time, connections and conversations elsewhere.

I almost long to see more photo albums, belonging to people I used to know, brimming with pictures of the newborn babies I’ll never meet. Maybe I really do want to know about your engagement and I’m sorry for unfollowing you after that stream of honeymoon pictures flooded my feed. Come back, all is forgiven, let’s go to the pub and talk about what sort of social networks we actually want. Rather than allowing Facebook to influence the world we live in, let's start thinking about how we can shape online life. After all, a social network is only as good as its users.

Like this? You might also be interested in:

The Week That Negativity Took Hold

Angela Merkel Declares Clamp Down On 'Fake News'

Here's What Your Life Would Be Like Without Social Media

Follow Vicky on Twitter @Victoria_Spratt
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Tags: Longish Reads, Facebook et al, Politics