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Aug 26, 2016

Bits | The Business of Technology - August 26, 2016: Facebook’s Attack on Democracy

Friday, August 26, 2016


The New York Times

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The New York Times

Friday, August 26, 2016


There is a saying that came out of the 1960s: “The personal is political.”
It’s still true, but in ways that might make you worry about the future of democracy.
John Herrman reports in The New York Times Magazine on publications that essentially live on Facebook, with a mission to provoke as much as to inform.
People click on headlines in their Facebook feeds like “No Media Is Telling You About the Muslim Who Attacked Donald Trump, So We Will …,” or “Did Hillary Clinton Just Admit on LIVE TV That Her Iraq War Vote Was a Bribe?” From there, they are taken to pages encrusted with sketchy ads.
John quotes site operators who make $20,000 a month or more on their sites, often saving on the costs of actually reporting and writing by reposting crazy stuff they find on the internet, then giving it a racy headline.
Facebook isn’t getting much revenue directly from this kind of publishing, but its interests converge mightily with these publishers when it comes to sharing.
Publishers like sharing because it puts a story in front of a lot more people who are likely to click on the story link. After all, one’s friends tend to share one’s political biases. Facebook likes sharing because it builds loyalty to Facebook.
Photo
Sharing, to Facebook, is a way that you build your personal brand, a statement of ego that is likely to keep you on the site longer. That is why Facebook’s computers watch what you do on the site. It wants to know what kind of stories to put in front of you, so you will read and share them.
On one hand, this is a nice service: You get the kind of news you seem to enjoy reading, which speaks to your worldview. On the other hand, this impedes encountering views unlike yours.
Approaching difference with empathy is at the heart of democracy, so the more our own views are endorsed by algorithms, the worse off democracy is. Look no further than the incomprehension and contempt with which many on both sides view each other in the current election season.
Of course, this existed long before Facebook. Talk radio and cable news enabled a range of viewpoints, and the biggest networks run programs that endorse a worldview of the right or the left. Direct marketing isolates us too, with lifestyle promises targeted to the people in our ZIP code.
Online life took this to a whole new level, with Google-type ad targeting that is as personal as an individual’s search and shopping choices.
The latest advances in machine learning and artificial intelligence may compound the problem. These are statistical systems with narrow aims: If it turns out you like something, you’ll get more of it, which you may like and share, ensuring you’ll get more of it.
Somebody could build a recommendation engine intended to foster a sympathetic view of others’ lives and values. But don’t count on it. That makes people nervous, and less likely to buy products or share links on Facebook.
Quentin Hardy
 
Related
Feature
Inside Facebook’s (Totally Insane, Unintentionally Gigantic, Hyperpartisan) Political-Media Machine
By JOHN HERRMAN
How a strange new class of media outlet has arisen to take over our news feeds.


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