How social networks make money on the negative emotions of their users.
The global Facebook outage made this social network a figure of major interest in the news. It also diverted attention away from the Senate hearings where a former employee of the company, Frances Haugen, testified about the company. Her testimony could hurt Mark Zuckerberg much more than the recent power outage.
Haugen worked at Facebook for two years. She was a leading product manager, and as she testified, the company’s policies began to raise doubts in her mind over time. Eventually, she copied tens of thousands of pages of internal documents and made them public.
This material shed light on a multitude of abuses, including the existence of VIP users who are allowed to break the rules without consequence, or poor content moderation in regional offices, something which allows criminal syndicates in some countries to abuse Facebook for illegal purposes. In addition, it has become clear that the company is not making any effective effort to counter anti-vaccine propaganda, something which places millions of people around the world in jeopardy.
Haugen also disclosed that Facebook algorithms are set up in such a way as to pit people against each other and trigger negative responses. On the CBS News program “60 Minutes,” Haugen revealed that a cell phone user can see about 100 pieces of social network content within five minutes. At the same time, the company has thousands of content options it can show you.
But according to Haugen, Facebook algorithms are set up to show you content that evokes hatred and anger. That’s because they work on people’s emotions; the more content you consume, the more emotional your posts are, and the more the social network earns. On the other hand, calm, thoughtful and balanced content gets indexed much less frequently and users see it much less often.
In fact, we are talking about Facebook algorithms feeding the neurosis of users to generate these emotional responses. However, even if the threat of sanctions forces Zuckerberg to tweak his brainchild, it won’t solve all the problems. We live in the age of social media, and these are the consequences.
After all, it was social media that has allowed outliers from all over the world to unite. Forty years ago, a flat-Earther was doomed to be lonely. Such a person might have been suspicious about his surroundings and blamed them for hypocrisy or stupidity, he might have been convinced that astronomers and textbooks were lying, and he might have considered himself to be a prophet. But the internet and social media gave this person the ability to find like-minded people, to create a group embracing them and make political demands. At some point, politicians began to respond .
Moreover, media outlets are no longer a seller’s market; they now belong to buyers. Human beings are irrational creatures. They do things first and then look for confirmation. As a result, the media have begun to adjust to this approach. The press has stopped complicating its audience’s real-world perspective. Instead, the media have begun to play to their audience by convincing viewers and readers that they are the bearers of truth, justice and the only true point of view. Debate has ended and we have begun to live among the monologues of so many.
There is nothing unusual about the fact the U.S. is now willing to seriously speculate about regulating social networks. Yes, it is a private business. Yes, we are talking about for-profit companies. But in a situation where one-third of the world’s adult population use the same social network, algorithmic opacity poses risk.
The documents that Haugen disclosed are quite illustrative. For example, in Myanmar, where 90% of the population is Buddhist, there were many Facebook posts calling for the massacre of the Rohingya. This ethnic group lives in Myanmar and practices Islam, but by 2015, there was only one Burmese-speaking moderator in the region. Therefore, the social network became a breeding ground for hatred in that country.
The post-Soviet space is no exception. Since the beginning of its hybrid warfare, Russia has been actively trying to work on the sentiments of Ukrainian citizens, employing the help of social networks. Until recently, it was usual to explain the shortage of content moderators with the fact that our market is not a priority for the social network, and therefore the company is not going to pay much attention to it.
This explanation, however, should not push this important issue aside. When social networks emerged, we assumed it would be a space for communication among everyone, that it would be a platform for exchanging ideas and discussion. But it turned out that the social networks, as conceived by their creators, have become an arena for gladiators. While the owners of the media companies may profit from our neuroses, other major players are using the fact that people are gullible in order to promote their own interests, such as convincing people that the victim of violence is the guilty party, or that the thief is entitled to stolen property.
The discussion about social network algorithms probably should have started years ago, but better late than never.