Thursday 27 October 2016

How Facebook and Google are manipulating our newsfeeds... but will we change our online habits?

Catherine Devine

Published 18/05/2016 | 14:16

Stock Image/Bloomberg
Stock Image/Bloomberg

Facebook and Google have been making headlines recently for manipulating users with their algorithms.

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But should we be surprised?

These tech companies have a monopoly in the tech industry and have billions of users worldwide. And let’s be honest, they provide us with a service that we couldn’t live without, and more importantly for free.

Facebook has come under fire for ignoring politically conservative news from our feeds. The tech company has denied this allegation but documents obtained by the Guardian states that Facebook’s guidelines show human intervention – and therefore editorial decisions – at almost every stage of Facebook’s trending news operation, a team that at one time was as few as 12 people.

It’s also been proven that Facebook shows us news that we are interested in. Simple enough yes, but critics claim that Facebook is only showing us one perspective, making us feel as though everyone agrees with our opinions, as the other side of the story doesn’t appear on our timelines.

There were also warnings recently of Facebook’s new reaction buttons, where instead of liking posts you can respond with emotions. People have warned that by using these new reactions, Facebook is getting further insight into what advertisements they aim at us as they can predict precisely how we will react.

We willingly give Facebook access to information such as our relationship status, our age, gender, location among many other things. We do so without any hesitation.

Facebook even knows who you are dating and it’s scary. The more you interact with people on the site through comments or messenger, the more likely you will see their posts in your news feed. Facebook reminds us constantly of what sites or links our top friends are interacting with so much so that our feeds can be restricted to just our top interactions.

Facebook has also been messing with our heads. A study from the University of California showed that Facebook filtered users’ newsfeeds by filtering their friend’s positive comments, which resulted in the user posting fewer positive comments or posts. Another test reduced exposure to negative emotional content and the opposite happened.

While Facebook uses our information against us and often manipulates our news feeds, very few of us will change our Facebook habits. The service isn’t free by any means, but most of us would rather pay with the exchange of our personal information than actually pay for a subscription to the site. Facebook has to make money from somewhere.

Google has also been accused of manipulating its users and could be fined €3bn by the EU for unlawfully promoting its own price comparison service in general search results while simultaneously relegating those of smaller rivals.

We all know Google’s algorithms show us the most popular sites and that users are inclined to only click on the first few results.

If Google is promoting itself on its search engine, then Google is controlling our information.

Facebook and Google are curating our news; they’re telling us what we should know and sheltering us online. They are our social gatekeepers.

They are providing us with a service essential to the operation of our society.

If we’re not paying them of course they are going to use us to the best of their ability to cash it in for their large tech companies.

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