Friday 2 December 2016

Adrian Weckler: Facebook wants your money, not your mind

Published 22/05/2016 | 02:30

‘Donald Trump has more fans on Facebook than his rivals’ Photo: AP
‘Donald Trump has more fans on Facebook than his rivals’ Photo: AP

Is Facebook a grand liberal media conspiracy? Is Mark Zuckerberg trying to snuff out conservative thinking, shared post by shared post?

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That is the core accusation being levied by a wave of centre-right pundits and media commentators.

The charges come after a couple of Facebook staff claimed that they were told to suppress stories adjudged to be 'conservative'. Although denied by Facebook executives (right up to Mark Zuckerberg), the accusations have enraged some media pundits and news organisations.

The truth is finally out, say critics: Facebook's founders, like the rest of Silicon Valley's liberal elite, are trying to cleanse the world of "honest", "common-sense" perspectives on the daily online platform that almost everyone now uses.

The conservatives are right that Silicon Valley types, including Zuckerberg, are socially liberal (even if they have no problem getting you to work a 70-hour week or finding tax loopholes to make an extra billion in profit).

But claims of a grand conspiracy are off the mark. Most of Facebook's real decision-making is actually done by computer algorithms. These are chiefly designed to generate 'likes', comments or things that will be shared, argued or cooed over. In general, these algorithms are unclouded by political animus. They have to be: they're what help make Facebook profitable.

So these ruthlessly democratic bits of code reflect what interests people more perfectly than any human editorial board. "It doesn't make sense for our mission or our business to suppress political content or prevent anyone from seeing what matters most to them," Zuckerberg wrote in a blogpost last week.

"The reality is, conservatives have always been an important part of Facebook. Donald Trump has more fans on Facebook than any other presidential candidate. And Fox News drives more interactions on its Facebook page than any other news outlet in the world. It's not even close."

Even still, it's no harm to remind ourselves just how powerful and influential Facebook has become.

Quite apart from its social utility, Facebook is now the world's most important news distribution channel by a mile, with more than 1 billion daily users seeing stories posted and shared on its platform. No TV network or newspaper organisation comes close: In Ireland alone, almost half of all adults use it every single day, far more than any other single news source.

So the firm deservedly attracts more scrutiny from a public policy perspective.

In this context, there are some legitimate questions to be asked. Even though the whole thing is guided by algorithms, someone ultimately is responsible for their effect. Who gets to decide the nuances in which stories get the biggest push? What are the interests of those who make such decisions? Does the coding process affect these outcomes and, if so, who is responsible for that?

Facebook's most senior executives have been at pains in recent days to emphasise the apolitical nature of their coding. However, Mark Zuckerberg has reportedly acknowledged that Facebook "needs to do more" to ensure socially conservative users trust Facebook.

"I know many conservatives don't trust that our platform surfaces content without a political bias," he said last week.

In some ways, this is a tricky issue to parse. It does not really concern things such as defamation, incitement or hate speech, all of which are policed both by Irish law and by human arbiters in Facebook itself. Instead, this is all about influence, the perceived projection of soft power. We in Ireland appear to take little interest in any of it. The few guidelines we have promoting media balance are already hopelessly behind actual media usage.

While relatively obscure radio shows are hauled up on issues of balance during referendums, the biggest platform ­- Facebook - is largely an algorithm-regulated zone. The media watchdogs are largely places for ever-weaker pontification while the radio stations and newspapers they purportedly regulate do whatever they want online.

One reason is that the notion of media 'balance' in Ireland, as in the US or the UK, is itself subjective. In this country, there are probably equal numbers of people on both sides of any particular argument that believe 'the media' is biased against them.

What's more, we love a row. While we listen to the news, we seem to enjoy participating when there's something provocative. Perhaps this is one of the reasons that Irish people are, according to some indices, the biggest users of Facebook on mobile devices in Europe.

The polite term for this is advocacy, or 'campaigning' media. But there's a thin line between noble causes and simply stirring it up.

Most of us have strong views on both of these things. And probably Facebook does too.

This isn't the last we'll hear about Facebook seeking to control our minds. But it should be taken, for the moment, with a pinch of salt. Facebook wants to make money, not a political legacy.

Sunday Indo Business

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