As I was about to unfriend him, a thought struck and I paused. I could actually use the material he posted in my class… The person was an acquaintance, a friend of a friend, with whom I was connected on Facebook. Of late, his posts had increasingly become extreme right wing and conspiracy oriented, and had now turned vile. At first I had thought that his account had been hacked but over time I realized that this was what he had now come to believe. It was clear that despite his high level of education he had fallen for propaganda of various kinds.
At that time (two years ago), I was about to start teaching a course on critical reasoning and I realized that rather than unfriending him, I could use the material from his posts for discussions in my class.
Well, he didn’t disappoint. Week after week, examples from his feed made my class material topical and engaging. I went further: I clicked on some of his posts to make sure that fb noticed my interest (I didn’t want to lose the goldmine of material), and subscribed to profiles from which he was reposting content. These profiles seemed to be part of troll armies and right-wing propaganda machines. Following these feeds gave me even better and more diverse material for my class.
This also helped me with another issue I was having: Over time, facebook’s algorithms had shifted my feed to be ultra-left wing, so much so, that the whole feed became highly biased, dogmatic and predictable. I knew what the articles or posts were going to say before I even clicked on them.
Thankfully, adding the right-wing propaganda machine got rid of much of the ultra-left content and made my feed, if not balanced, at least less biased. Two years on, I notice that now my news feed has became bi-modal. I see mostly leftist articles (but not ultra-left ideologues) with a smattering of ultra-right propaganda.
These days, it is common knowledge how facebook’s algorithms create echo-chambers reinforcing one point of view, widening cracks into chasms and splitting friend circles into the cacophony of a mob. Interestingly, Facebook does this not only by pushing forward some profiles and diminishing the prominence of others, but also cherry-picking specific posts from a single profile.
I gained some insight into this process recently while scrolling through my feed. I skimmed a headline on an anti-vaxxer’s feed and moved on. Then I suddenly realized that the item would be good for my critical reasoning class for the coming semester. On scrolling back, I couldn’t find it. So I went to the person’s profile. But I couldn’t see it there either, and I started wondering if I had seen the item in someone else’s profile. Confused, I spent some time browsing his timeline and discovered, buried at #9 the item I was looking for. But I also realized something strange — that his nutty feeds comprised only about 1/4th of all his feeds. Fb had been suppressing his “normal” posts, and, catering to my “interest”, put only the conspiracy theory ones in my feed.
I had been assuming (based on the posts shared on my feed) that this person only posts conspiracy theories and anti-science articles, when it turns out that these comprise only a fraction of his posts.
By targeting to my browsing habits more and more narrowly, fb had distilled his feed to such an extent as to lose sight of the whole person – other things (besides conspiracy theories) he may care about, perhaps even points of common interest. All I saw was one side of the person.
This small instance shed light on how fb algorithms work to exaggerate differences by presenting individuals and debates in narrow one-sided light. It is not hard to see how this approach would maximize profits for the company – by creating sharper divides not on ideas, but people – making “targeted marketing” easier. Even though I knew in theory that this is how fb works, it was instructional to be able to see it in action.
In the long run, I hope that we do not become so attuned to the social media world that we forget that it doesn’t represent the full reality of an issue, let alone a person. Many times, I have been annoyed enough to almost close my fb account, but each time I have stopped myself. I keep coming back to the feed, warts and all, because it helps stay in touch with old old friends and also find fresh material for my class !
Guest post by,
Madam Professor ji