In Defense of Algorithms

“When Facebook launched in 2004, it was a fairly static collection of profile pages. Facebook users could put lists of favorite media on their “walls” and use the “poke” button to give each other social-media nudges. To see what other people were posting, you had to intentionally visit their pages. There were no automatic notifications, no feeds to alert you to new information.
In 2006, Facebook introduced the News Feed, an individualized homepage for each user that showed friends’ posts in chronological order. The change seemed small at the time, but it turned out to be the start of a revolution. Instead of making an active choice to check in on other people’s pages, users got a running list of updates.

Users still controlled what information they saw by selecting which people and groups to follow. But now user updates, from new photos to shower thoughts, were delivered automatically, as a chronologically ordered stream of real-time information.

This created a problem. Facebook was growing fast, and users were spending more and more time on it, especially once Apple’s iPhone app store brought social media to smartphones. It wasn’t long before there were simply too many updates for many people to reasonably follow. Sorting the interesting from the irrelevant became a big task.

But what if there were a way for the system to sort through those updates for users, determining which posts might be most interesting, most relevant, most likely to generate a response?

In 2013, Facebook largely ditched the chronological feed. In its place, the social media company installed an algorithm.

Instead of a simple time-ordered log of posts from friends and pages you followed, you saw whichever of these posts Facebook’s algorithms “decided” you should see, filtering content based on an array of factors designed to suss out which content users found more interesting. That algorithm not only changed Facebook; it changed the world, making Facebook specifically—and social media algorithms generally—the subject of intense cultural and political debate.”

“Algorithms..help solve problems of information abundance. They cut through the noise, making recommendations more relevant, helping people see what they’re most likely to want to see, and helping them avoid content they might find undesirable. They make our internet experience less chaotic, less random, less offensive, and more efficient.”

“As Facebook and other social media companies started using them to sort and prioritize vast troves of user-generated content, algorithms started determining what material people were most likely to see online. Mathematical assessment replaced bespoke human judgment, leaving some people upset at what they were missing, some annoyed at what they were shown, and many feeling manipulated.

The algorithms that sort content for Facebook and other social media megasites change constantly. The precise formulas they employ at any given moment aren’t publicly known. But one of the key metrics is engagement, such as how many people have commented on a post or what type of emoji reactions it’s received.

As social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter, which shifted its default from chronological to algorithmic feeds in 2016, became more dominant as sources of news and political debate, people began to fear that algorithms were taking control of America’s politics.

Then came the 2016 election. In the wake of Trump’s defeat of Hillary Clinton in the presidential race, reports started trickling out that Russia may have posted on U.S. social media in an attempt to influence election results. Eventually it emerged that employees of a Russian company called the Internet Research Agency had posed as American individuals and groups on Facebook, Instagram, Tumblr, Twitter, and YouTube. These accounts posted and paid for ads on inflammatory topics, criticized candidates (especially Clinton), and sometimes shared fake news. The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence opened an investigation, and Facebook, Google, and Twitter executives were called before Congress to testify.”

“Progressives continued to embrace this explanation with each new and upsetting political development. The alt-right? Blame algorithms! Conspiracy theories about Clinton and sex trafficking? Algorithms! Nice Aunt Sue becoming a cantankerous loon online? Algorithms, of course.

Conservatives learned to loathe the algorithm a little later. Under fire about Russian trolls and other liberal bugaboos, tech companies started cracking down on a widening array of content. Conservatives became convinced that different kinds of algorithms—the ones used to find and deal with hate speech, spam, and other kinds of offensive posts—were more likely to flag and punish conservative voices. They also suspected that algorithms determining what people did see were biased against conservatives.”

“A common thread in all this is the idea that algorithms are powerful engines of personal and political behavior, either deliberately engineered to push us to some predetermined outcome or negligently wielded in spite of clear dangers. Inevitably, this narrative produced legislative proposals”

“It’s no secret that tech companies engineer their platforms to keep people coming back. But this isn’t some uniquely nefarious feature of social media businesses. Keeping people engaged and coming back is the crux of entertainment entities from TV networks to amusement parks.

Moreover, critics have the effect of algorithms precisely backward. A world without algorithms would mean kids (and everyone else) encountering more offensive or questionable content.

Without the news feed algorithm, “the first thing that would happen is that people would see more, not less, hate speech; more, not less, misinformation; more, not less, harmful content,” Nick Clegg, Meta’s then–vice president of global affairs, told George Stephanopoulos last year. That’s because algorithms are used to “identify and deprecate and downgrade bad content.” After all, algorithms are just sorting tools. So Facebook uses them to sort and downgrade hateful content.

“Without [algorithms], you just get an undifferentiated mass of content, and that’s not very useful,” noted Techdirt editor Mike Masnick last March.”

“several studies suggest social media is actually biased toward conservatives. A paper published in Research & Politics in 2022 found that a Facebook algorithm change in 2018 benefitted local Republicans more than local Democrats. In 2021, Twitter looked at how its algorithms amplify political content, examining millions of tweets sent by elected officials in seven countries, as well as “hundreds of millions” of tweets in which people shared links to articles. It found that “in six out of seven countries—all but Germany—Tweets posted by accounts from the political right receive more algorithmic amplification than the political left” and that right-leaning news outlets also “see greater algorithmic amplification.”

As for the Republican email algorithms bill, it would almost certainly backfire. Email services like Gmail use algorithms to sort out massive amounts of spam: If the GOP bill passed, it could mean email users would end up seeing a lot more spam in their inboxes as services strove to avoid liability.”

“it becomes clear why people might feel like algorithms have increased polarization. Life not long ago meant rarely engaging in political discussion with people outside one’s immediate community, where viewpoints tend to coalesce or are glossed over for the sake of propriety. For instance, before Facebook, my sister and an old family friend would likely never have gotten into clashes about Trump—it just wouldn’t have come up in the types of interactions they found themselves in. But that doesn’t mean they’re more politically divergent now; they just know more about it. Far from limiting one’s horizons, engaging with social media means greater exposure to opposing viewpoints, information that challenges one’s beliefs, and sometimes surprising perspectives from people around you.

The evidence used to support the social media/polarization hypothesis is often suspect. For instance, people often point to political polarization. But polarization seems to have started its rise decades before Facebook and Twitter came along.”

“For the average person online, algorithms do a lot of good. They help us get recommendations tailored to our tastes, save time while shopping online, learn about films and music we might not otherwise be exposed to, avoid email spam, keep up with the biggest news from friends and family, and be exposed to opinions we might not otherwise hear.”

“If algorithms are driving political chaos, we don’t have to look at the deeper rot in our democratic systems. If algorithms are driving hate and paranoia, we don’t have to grapple with the fact that racism, misogyny, antisemitism, and false beliefs never faded as much as we thought they had. If the algorithms are causing our troubles, we can pass laws to fix the algorithms. If algorithms are the problem, we don’t have to fix ourselves.

Blaming algorithms allows us to avoid a harder truth. It’s not some mysterious machine mischief that’s doing all of this. It’s people, in all our messy human glory and misery. Algorithms sort for engagement, which means they sort for what moves us, what motivates us to act and react, what generates interest and attention. Algorithms reflect our passions and predilections back at us.”

Apple broke Facebook’s ad machine. Who’s going to fix it?

“Facebook says changes Apple made that affect how ads work on iOS apps — namely, that it’s now much harder for app-makers and advertisers to track user behavior — will cost it $10 billion in revenue this year.

For context: Facebook is still making an enormous amount of money from advertising — analyst Michael Nathanson estimates the company will generate $129 billion in ad revenue in 2022. But that would mean its ad business will only grow about 12 percent this year, compared to a 36 percent increase the previous year. Wall Street has prized Facebook for its ability to grow at a rocket velocity, and now that rocket may be sputtering.”

Facebook’s ‘Monopoly’ Was Always Doomed

“Facebook is still a behemoth, and it has a long way to fall before that will cease to be true (if it ever is). I’m not suggesting we start writing eulogies yet. But the U.S. (and European Union) antitrust push against Facebook and other big tech companies assumes—and often explicitly argues—that Facebook’s power is permanent and its market share irreversible. Recent developments and ancient history show that’s very obviously not the case.”

Facebook Is a Snitch

“”Social media has become a significant source of information for U.S. law enforcement and intelligence agencies,” the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law noted in a report released last week. “The Department of Homeland Security, the FBI, and the State Department are among the many federal agencies that routinely monitor social platforms, for purposes ranging from conducting investigations to identifying threats to screening travelers and immigrants.””

Islamic extremists sidestep Facebook’s content police

“Photos of beheadings, extremist propaganda and violent hate speech related to Islamic State and the Taliban were shared for months within Facebook groups over the past year despite the social networking giant’s claims it had increased efforts to remove such content.

The posts — some tagged as “insightful” and “engaging” via new Facebook tools to promote community interactions — championed the Islamic extremists’ violence in Iraq and Afghanistan, including videos of suicide bombings and calls to attack rivals across the region and in the West, according to a review of social media activity between April and December. At least one of the groups contained more than 100,000 members.

In several Facebook groups, competing Sunni and Shia militia trolled each other by posting pornographic images and other obscene photos into rival groups in the hope Facebook would remove those communities.

In others, Islamic State supporters openly shared links to websites with reams of online terrorist propaganda, while pro-Taliban Facebook users posted regular updates about how the group took over Afghanistan during much of 2021”

“Facebook said it had invested heavily in artificial intelligence tools to automatically remove extremist content and hate speech in more than 50 languages. Since early 2021, the company told POLITICO it had added more Pashto and Dari speakers — the main languages spoken in Afghanistan — but declined to provide numbers of the staffing increases.

Yet the scores of Islamic State and Taliban content still on the platform show those efforts have failed to stop extremists from exploiting the platform.”