Purging political content from Facebook, Zuckerberg is a modern-day Pandora


This week, Mark Zuckerberg announced that Facebook will test changes to its algorithm to cut back the political content on its network and rein in divisiveness. The move is welcome news for those who recognize the corrosive influence of the platform on political discourse and who are aghast at its real-life consequences.

Canada, alongside Brazil and Indonesia, will be the sandbox for this shift.

Perhaps we should feel lucky. Somehow, I doubt it.

That’s because this decision reveals Zuckerberg to be no more than a modern-day Pandora, attempting to recapture the ills and monsters he has previously released from the box. For years, his company has encouraged division and radical politics, along the way realizing just how popular and profitable it can be. Over time, Facebook’s users have been rewired to seek out disagreement and extremes, rather than the connections and shared values of friends and family.

So, it’s no surprise that Facebook’s platform has become something very different from the social network it set out to create.

For those who have been paying attention, like New York Times tech columnist Kevin Roose, this shift has been a long time coming. If Zuckerberg is Pandora, then consider Roose our Cassandra, another heroine of Greek mythology who was cursed with the power of tragic prophecies doomed to be ignored by all.

Over the summer, Roose began tracking the top performing link posts on U.S. Facebook, sharing the top 10 via his Twitter account. This list was a consistent revolving door of heavily biased news outlets and political agitators like Ben Shapiro, Franklin Graham and Breitbart News. It captured, in real time, the degradation of discourse on Facebook. Given the world’s largest social network is also a primary source of news for millions of North Americans, this is an alarming trend.

To be clear, it’s no accident that these are the top performers. For too long, Facebook’s algorithms — and indeed its business model — have preferred divisive and extreme content over peer-to-peer interaction or reliable news sources.

So, while some argue that Facebook is addressing the root of the issue by focusing on the algorithms that got it into this mess in the first place, I disagree. Facebook’s algorithms will always be geared toward the ultimate purpose of more engagement, greater profits and wider use. Sadly, that purpose is best served by content that feeds us what we’ve been taught to desire: self-affirming perspectives and extreme opinions.

When Facebook’s desire to moderate that content comes in conflict with its bottom line, the company’s true colours are revealed.

After the presidential election, Facebook modified its algorithm to prioritize trustworthy, respected news sources in order to curtail misinformation about election fraud and stopping “the steal.” The encouraging move left many to wonder if it would be permanently implemented to clean up the site and turn down the temperature.

Unfortunately, the move was temporary. This and similar changes to the algorithm had to be canned when it became clear they would not only calm divisions, but also reduce user engagement. At Facebook, profit trumps any desire to clean up the platform. And as long as users continue to prefer exactly the sort of content that has wrought so much havoc on our civil society and our politics, don’t expect any serious change.

The cynical view is that Facebook is simply blowing smoke to avoid intervention by the new Biden administration’s tech skeptics. Biden himself admitted in a January interview that he’s “never been a fan of Facebook” or of Zuckerberg. Many Facebook hawks within the Federal Trade Commission and elsewhere believe the new administration is their opportunity to finally go after what they see as a flagrant violation of antitrust laws.

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But Zuckerberg also faces pressure from within. In November, Buzzfeed reported widespread disillusionment among Facebook employees — only 51 per cent of whom said they believed the company has a positive impact on the world. That’s a massive problem in a sector as competitive as tech.

So, before we congratulate Zuckerberg for this change, let’s consider the motives behind it. More importantly, let’s see if it sticks or, for that matter, if it makes a difference.





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