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On social media, the key to success is getting views and clicks, and Facebook has figured out a way to deliver exactly that with an algorithm that, unfortunately, is very much broken. Instead of encouraging nuanced conversations on complex topics, this arguably “sociopathic” algorithm attempts to stir up the pot with deceptive or misleading posts, and a mix of conspiracy theories, fake news and incendiary comments. Go check for yourself the next time you’re on Facebook – you’re almost guaranteed to see a lot of content that “triggers” you to respond in some way.
Why the Facebook algorithm is the way it is
And that’s exactly by design. According to a leaked Facebook internal memo from 2018, the Facebook algorithm is only optimized when it exploits “the human brain’s attraction to divisiveness.” In other words, the social media content that is most likely to get clicks, likes and shares is also the type of content that most threatens to divide our society. Even worse, additional Facebook memos have suggested that the loudest and most aggressive users of Facebook should be the ones that get to have their voices amplified the most. That’s very dangerous – that’s like giving all the power to the guys and gals with bullhorns, and taking away power from the thoughtful, introspective types.
The sad thing about the current state of affairs with the Facebook algorithm is that Facebook appears to be too greedy to do anything about it. Yes, in the wake of the hotly contested 2016 presidential election, Facebook publicly stated that it would clean up the platform and make it a kinder, gentler place. But that has obviously gone by the wayside, with some social media critics suggesting that Facebook has been afraid of alienating certain political groups in the nation, or of appearing biased in what content it allows to surface with the algorithm.
It might be too much of a stretch to blame Facebook alone for the current paroxysm of rage and violence spreading across the country right now, but social media video content has become a very potent spark (literally) for the fires now consuming America. People now get their news and opinions from social media, so what they see on Facebook also impacts how they view what’s happening around them.
Of course, you can blame the mainstream media as well. There’s a certain amount of sociopathic behavior going on now at places like CNN and Fox News, where every news event has to be a dramatic “bombshell” and where all content aired on TV is meant to stir up the base and demonize the opposition. Add in the fact that months of quarantine and economic decline have led to a lot of pent-up rage and aggression, and you can see why protests, rallies and demonstrations are becoming so popular.
Will Facebook ever change?
So what can be done? Facebook is a publicly traded, money-making operation, and its primary duty is to its shareholders, and not society. That, like it or not, is the root cause of the problem. That’s Capitalism 101. If Facebook makes money, it does well for its shareholders. And so Facebook has every incentive in the world to crank up the algorithm and make it as “sociopathic” as possible.
So don’t be surprised if things get nastier and nastier on Facebook leading up to the 2020 election. Facebook could become a raging dumpster fire of harmful, deceitful and controversial content unless social media platforms are given a real incentive to change how they are manipulating our feelings, emotions and impulses on a daily basis.