It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when we lost control of what we see, read—and even think—to the biggest social-media companies.
I put it right around 2016. That was the year Twitter and Instagram joined Facebook and YouTube in the algorithmic future. Ruled by robots programmed to keep our attention as long as possible, they promoted stuff we’d most likely tap, share or heart—and buried everything else.
Bye-bye, feeds that showed everything and everyone we followed in an unending, chronologically ordered river. Hello, high-energy feeds that popped with must-clicks.
At around the same time, Facebook—whose News Feed has been driven by algorithms since 2009—hid the setting to switch back to “Most Recent.”
No big deal, you probably thought, if you thought about it at all. Except these opaque algorithms didn’t only maximize news of T. Swift’s latest album drops. They also maximized the reach of the incendiary—the attacks, the misinformation, the conspiracy theories. They pushed us further into our own hyperpolarized filter bubbles.
“There are bad people doing bad things on the internet—QAnon, white supremacists—it’s not that Facebook, YouTube and other social-media sites allow it on their platform. It’s that they amplify it,” says Hany Farid, a computer science professor at the University of California, Berkeley.
The worst-case scenarios are no longer just hypothetical. People are shown things that appeal most to them, they click, they read, they watch, they fall into rabbit holes that reinforce their thoughts and ideas, they connect with like-minded people. They end up in their own personalized version of reality. They end up inside the U.S. Capitol.
Certainly social media isn’t alone to blame. And when the blame does fall on social media, the robots aren’t the only ones culpable. The silencing of President Trump’s Facebook and Twitter accounts revealed the opposite: The humans running these companies still have final say over what does—and doesn’t—appear. (And last I checked, we can still opt out of using social media at all.)
But at the heart of it all, this is still a gigantic technology problem: Computers are in charge of what we see and they’re operating without transparency.
Usually, the goal of my column is to provide solutions to tech problems. In this case, there isn’t one—certainly not a simple one. All I can do is share some ideas. [Continue reading…]