The Wall Street Journal writes in bold letters on the top of its Facebook Files page — which shares internal reports of Facebook Inc. leaked by Frances Haugen, a former Facebook manager — that the company knows its platform is “riddled with flaws that cause harm.”
These files shed light on Facebook’s choice to selectively apply community guidelines as well as exacerbate the spread of misinformation, political polarization and insecurities of teenage girls to increase its profit. While this is despicable, it is not shocking when you consider the reality of our interactions with online platforms. As long as we recognize that our online communications serve our own interests as well as benefit companies, we can still use Facebook or any other online platform.
First, even without considering any algorithmic bias, Facebook and Instagram are catalysts for manipulating and spreading negativity as well as false information.
Instagram is a social media platform that allows people to share pictures of their life, meaning users are constantly comparing the looks of one post to the next — and the people in them. These photos can be staged and edited to the user’s discretion — allowing models with stylists and Photoshop to create unrealistic beauty standards.
On the other hand, Facebook has more complex features that allow people to share everything on their mind — from exciting thoughts to family photos. Users are encouraged to react to posts from their “friends.” In some cases, Facebook can be used for meaningful thought exchange. Yet, by giving every person a platform to project their thoughts to the world — whether supported in fact or not — Facebook is a superspreader for misinformation.
Not to endorse the actions of Mark Zuckerberg — CEO and founder of Facebook — and the stakeholders of Facebook Inc., but as consumers, we have to keep in mind that social media networks are a business. The purpose of both platforms is engaging users — which is measured through liking, watching and commenting on content. As a business, to encourage more ads and generate more revenue, Facebook will do anything in its power to keep us on the app — even exacerbate political polarization and the declining mental health of teenage girls, as the Facebook Files demonstrate.
Ultimately, this leak highlights the societal illusion that we have control over who we connect with and what information we see when using the internet or any social media platform. We tend to think that our use of online tools is solely for the benefit of ourselves, our business or our social group. However, in reality, our interactions are simultaneously being tracked and manipulated.
All over the internet, there are algorithms that collect our information and feed us content. Every time we go on a website, we provide the company with “cookies” — traces from our past internet searches that help the site we currently are on to know our interests. We do not know what specific information websites are collecting and how their algorithms are using it to decide what content to show us.
At least because of the Facebook Files, for right now, we know that Facebook and Instagram algorithms want to promote posts that elicit a strong negative reaction. Constantly, these algorithms are developing and changing — meaning we will never fully understand why platforms are showing us specific ads or posts.
So, how do we move forward knowing that we do not see how these sites use our information? The easy solution is to abstain from using Facebook or any other social media app — to use the old-fashioned method and call people on the phone.
While this may work for some, for many, social media has become a part of human communication, with nearly seven in 10 U.S. adults on the platform. Facebook in itself is a specific method of communication — like a phone call or a text. It reaches people of all different lifestyles, identities and countries.
Facebook and the company’s other platforms have features that make communication easier and faster. Facebook groups are an effective method to communicate with people with the same interests. People and organizations can highlight the pictures or visuals from others on Instagram using the “story” feature. In recent years, Facebook Inc.’s WhatsApp has grown — allowing friends and family to communicate internationally. It is unrealistic to think we can all withdraw from these features that we have grown accustomed to.
In an ideal world, I would say that being aware that this exchange of information occurs whenever we access the web is enough. The whole purpose of this exchange — and why this leak is so shocking — is that we cannot be fully aware of why we see content and what information the platform knows about us. Instead, the best we can do is be mindful that everything we see has a bias.
Just like we should be aware of the bias of the news we read, we need to be now mindful of the content bias. We have to think — why do the reposts from the new conspiracy theory keep showing up at the top of my timeline? What is Facebook’s purpose in showing me those?
Facebook should not be unequally promoting certain kinds of speech and promoting accounts that glorify eating disorders to teenage girls. It is disgusting to be knowingly profiting off the insecurities of young girls and political polarization. But this is just one example of the algorithms that exist all over the internet in order to benefit the platform.
We, as consumers, need to be aware that what we see is manipulated to elicit a reaction from us and keep us coming back.
Talia Spillerman writes about anything and everything. Write to her at [email protected].