Following the screeching fits of people like Rappler CEO Maria Ressa who put the blame on the so-called modern-day “scourge” of “fake news” squarely on Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg has struck back. Zuck has reportedly axed news media’s access to our prized Facebook newsfeeds and pulled the revenue rug from under the feet of news media shills like Ressa.
Though not yet clear on specifics, this much has so far been gleaned on the expected effects of this move…
“As we roll this out, you’ll see less public content like posts from businesses, brands, and media,” Zuckerberg said in his note. “And the public content you see more will be held to the same standard — it should encourage meaningful interactions between people.”
Facebook’s troubles began when it implemented a prioritisation algorithm to interevene in the way updates published by members of users’ social network — which consisted of other users they had established a “friend” association with, pages they had subscribed to (originally as “fans”, then as “likes”, and, most recently, to “follow”), and, when the new service was added, “groups” of other users — appeared on their newsfeeds.
Originally, these updates appeared on a first-in-first-out basis. Posts were then exhibited in chronological order from most recently-posted to earliest posted. Operating in this manner, newsfeeds of Facebook users at the time represented a true and pure representation of the state of one’s social network. Users were in full control of their newsfeeds and Facebook’s role was as a platform in the true sense. When users misbehaved, the community dealt with it. For example, we “unfriended” users who over-shared stuff or behaved rudely. There were no paid or promoted posts appearing on our timelines at the time. Facebook users were solely accountable for what appeared on their timelines.
Facebook’s intervention into our timelines started sometime when it added a feature that allowed users to indicate if they wanted to “see more” or “see less” of a particular type of update or updates from a particular user. This was a welcome feature at a time because it provided us an additional means to control what we see on our newsfeeds without having to “unfriend” a member of our social network. This proved to be a slippery slope. Even back then, those features already required a scoring algorithm to promote or demote newsfeed content based on these initial preference parameters given control to users. That alone already exposed Facebook to accountability for the composition of its users’ newsfeeds.
That was circa 2007 through 2008 (ish), when publishers started to feel the effects of the less-than-straightforward manner with which content appeared on users’ newsfeeds. And that was when the business of gaming the newsfeed started. For its part, Facebook progressively automated more and more of its prioritisation regime, users became less and less conscious of how they were influencing this algorithm, and Facebook, became more and more presumptuous about what its users “wanted” to see. The algorithm relied less on users consciously telling it what to post more or less of and, instead, inferred these wishes from less conscious and less deliberate behaviour. We now call this unconscious behaviour “user engagement”. The methods and tools used for inferring user preferences and predicting user behaviour based on “user engagement” data is a lucrative endeavour in the field now known as “analytics”. From there, the rest is history.
In short, Facebook just needs to leave our newsfeeds alone and stop presuming to know better than its users with regard to what they want to see apparing on them. That way, everyone is happy. Zuck won’t be blamed for “fake news” by shills like Maria Ressa, users will be accountable for the composition of their own newsfeeds. And, most important of all, news media will focus on reporting the truth and less on reporting what is popular.
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