29th September 2014

Facebook may soon promote extremism

Lauren Wills: Facebook is an egotistical façade perfect for extremism, and it’s going to get worse.

Despite the recent controversy over Facebook’s manipulation of the information displayed on our newsfeeds, the site’s engineers are giving us justification for another tweaking of the system. Concern has been raised over Facebook engaging in the creation of fake statuses and manipulation of posts to see how users’ moods could be affected, yet the site continues with its intention to organise our data in new ways to improve our social media experience.

Erich Owens and David Vickery blogged their reasons for these new changes, explaining that the feedback they have received from users suggests some posts are only relevant at certain times. For instance if it’s Monday evening and you’re posting your opinion about the latest on Coronation Street, then it would be helpful if similar posts were displayed on the same evening as opposed to three days later when you have moved onto posting about something more current.

In a nutshell, Facebook intend to show you more recent and time-popular data than what you see presently, which is predominantly determined by its popularity in terms of likes.

One of the side effects of this manipulation is that breaking news stories will apparently appear more frequently on our news feeds. The engineers commented that Facebook will give “priority to breaking news so you can immediately know what your friends or favourite pages are saying about the stories of the day”.

At first glance, this appears like a good idea. Considering the vast amounts of time people spend on Facebook, surely it would be constructive for individuals to be reading up on current affairs and issues at the forefront of the media.

This, however, is dangerous. Facebook is already a site where individuals feel as if they have to write statuses in order to please and to impress others. We are obsessed with likes and shares, so much so that we often refrain from posting our opinions on certain topics. We act as if the world would come to a standstill, should we end up with zero likes, or worse a wall full of criticism and debate.

Seeing political opinions on current issues by friends may have the negative effect of making users more inclined to take particular standpoints. By no means is it wrong to be influenced by other people, and by no means am I suggesting that typical mediums for receiving the news are unbiased and equivocal.

However, a journalist is bound not only by journalistic integrity, but also by law to not make false claims or lie outright. Whilst it can be argued that certain types of journalism miss the mark of integrity by a long shot, they are all open to public scrutiny; your Facebook status, however, is not.

It isn’t just an issue that our statuses don’t have to be truthful—legally speaking they do in fact have to avoid libel. Yet, people make questionable claims about homosexuality, race, religion, immigration, and other topics all the time. Not only will their statuses be seen more often, but their statuses will have a wider range; they will even be promoted by Facebook’s algorithm.

In an age where individuals are already pressured over what to post and what not to post on Facebook, a shift in Facebook’s algorithm to add breaking news to the equation could have a detrimental effect of creating a very loud generation with uninformed opinions.

Surely it’s better to read an article by a well-informed journalist who has experience and knowledge on a certain topic after doing extensive research, as opposed to a hormonal teenager seeking acceptance amongst their peers.

Moreover, it is merely human nature to surround ourselves by like-minded people. This presents an issue whereby we only see the same opinion repeated in subtly different ways. Opposing opinions would become a rarity, and when seen a cause for confrontation.

On the other hand, such confrontation could encourage debate and argument about contentious views. In actuality, however, it may only result in the self-validation of people with a particular viewpoint. The popular viewpoints will beget more likes as the unpopular opinions, regardless of their validity, will be skimmed over as the eye naturally gravitates to the liked posts.

Our social networks hugely contribute to our opinions and views.  To permit unchecked and unscrutinised opinions to take precedence merely because of their actuality is problematic for well-balanced opinions.

Facebook is a social media giant and dominates its competitors, though its number of users has recently fallen.  Facebook’s recent engagement in unauthorised emotional manipulation makes me wary that they want further control over what we see on our newsfeeds—all opinions, even the most abhorrently hateful, will be denoted as important merely because they discuss a current point of contention.

I just hope people are able to consider different points of view on current issues from a variety of different sources before posting their opinions on Facebook and influencing their network of friends.

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