Updated: Jun 4, 2021
In an internal Facebook study, The Wall Street Journal reported that 64% of people who join extremist groups on Facebook do it because Facebook's algorithms tell them to join those groups. This direction comes from the recommendations of "Groups to Join" and "Discover" features of Facebook.
Facebook's algorithm is optimized for engagement, or essentially how much time you spend on the site. And they measure that with "likes", "shares", "comments" and how quickly or slowly you scroll past an article. The more engaged you are, the more time you spend on Facebook, the more money Facebook makes.
Extremist content is really engaging.
It just so happens extremist content is really engaging. And the more you see it the more normalized it becomes. The Facebook algorithm supports this by driving content to your feed which will link together a bit like traditional TV programming. For example, you may have one political leaning, but while scrolling through Facebook you see posts from people who are a lot more extreme than you. The more frequently you view this type of content, the more Facebook will deliver it to you through the algorithm, and the more normalized seeing it becomes.
Ethics vs. Profits
At the request of senior executives, the social-media giant internally studied how it polarizes users and found, "Our algorithms exploit the human brain's attraction to divisiveness," read a slide from an internal presentation. "If left unchecked," it warned, Facebook would feed users "more and more divisive content in an effort to gain user attention and increase time on the platform."
The presentation findings and data analysis from the Facebook team, went to the heart of the question plaguing Facebook since its founding, "Does Facebook aggravate polarization and tribal behavior?" The answer was a resounding, "Yes." Essentially, making the public become more polarized and extremist helps Facebook executives make more money. And fixing the problem means they would have to make less profit, which is why they haven't fixed the problem.
No plans to change the platform algorithm.
In the end, what executives have decided is to shut down efforts to make the site less divisive and weakened or blocked efforts to apply the report conclusions to the company's products. Facebook vice president of global public policy and former chief of staff under President George W. Bush, Joel Kaplan, who played a central role in vetting proposed changes, argued that efforts to make conversations on the platform more civil were "paternalistic." Kaplan is a controversial figure in part due to his staunch right-wing politics and his apparent ability to sway CEO Mark Zuckerberg on important policy matters.
In a statement to The Verge, a Facebook spokesperson claimed they "used research to understand our platform’s impact on society so we continue to improve." In an environment where top executives equate improving the platform with improving profits, we may have more polarizing features and changes to look forward to from the platform in the future.
Transitioning from Social Media to a News Media platform
Nick Clegg, vice president of global affairs at Facebook, said in a blog published on the Facebook company website, “We absolutely recognize quality journalism is at the heart of how open societies function." Facebook has announced deals with several publishers who's content is now featured in Facebook News, a dedicated section within the Facebook app that features curated and personalized news from hundreds of national, local and lifestyle publications. Facebook announced in late February that they plan to invest at least $1 billion in the news industry in the next three years.
A version of this blog post has also been published on Medium.com
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Sources: WSJ, "Facebook Executives Shut Down Efforts to Make the Site Less Divisive." Jeff Horwitz and Deepa Seetharaman. The Verge, "Facebook reportedly ignored its own research showing algorithms divided users." Nick Statt. Facebook, "The Real Story of What Happened With News on Facebook in Australia." Nick Clegg, VP of Global Affairs, Facebook.