Remember when Donald Rumsfeld talked about “known unknowns”? It was a clunky phrase, but in a weird way, it describes much of today’s world.
Take social media, for example. What we know is that pretty much everyone is on one or another (or many) social media platforms. What we don’t know is how the various algorithms those sites employ are affecting our opinions, our relationships and our politics. (Just one of the many reasons to be nervous about the reach of wacko conspiracies like QAnon, not to mention the upcoming election…)
A recent essay in the “subscriber only” section of Talking Points Memo focused on those algorithms, and especially on the effect of those used by Facebook. The analysis suggested that the algorithms were designed to increase users’ intensities and Facebook’s profits, designs that have contributed mightily to the current polarization of American voters.
The essay referenced recent peer-reviewed research confirming something we probably all could have guessed: the more time people spend on Facebook the more polarized their beliefs become. What most of us wouldn’t have guessed is the finding that the effect is five times greater for conservatives than for liberals–an effect that was not found for other social media sites.
The study looked at the effect on conservatives of Facebook usage and Reddit usage. The gist is that when conservatives binge on Facebook the concentration of opinion-affirming content goes up (more consistently conservative content) but on Reddit it goes down significantly. This is basically a measure of an echo chamber. And remember too that these are both algorithmic, automated sites. Reddit isn’t curated by editors. It’s another social network in which user actions, both collectively and individually, determine what you see. If you’ve never visited Reddit let’s also just say it’s not all for the faint of heart. There’s stuff there every bit as crazy and offensive as anything you’ll find on Facebook.
The difference is in the algorithms and what the two sites privilege in content. Read the article for the details but the gist is that Reddit focuses more on interest areas and viewers’ subjective evaluations of quality and interesting-ness whereas Facebook focuses on intensity of response.
Why the difference? Reddit is primarily a “social” site; Facebook is an advertising site. Its interest in stoking intensity is in service of that advertising–the longer you are engaged with the platform, the more time you spend on it, and especially how intensely you are engaged, all translate into increased profit.
Facebook argues that the platform is akin to the telephone; no one blames telephone when people use them to spread extremist views. It argues that the site is simply facilitating communication. But–as the essay points out– that’s clearly not true. Facebook’s search engine is designed to encourage and amplify some emotions and responses–something your telephone doesn’t do. It’s a “polarization/extremism generating machine.”
The essay ends with an intriguing–and apt–analogy to the economic description of externalities:
Producing nuclear energy is insanely profitable if you sell the energy, take no safety precautions and dump the radioactive waste into the local river. In other words, if the profits remain private and the costs are socialized. What makes nuclear energy an iffy financial proposition is the massive financial costs associated with doing otherwise. Facebook is like a scofflaw nuclear power company that makes insane profits because it runs its reactor in the open and dumps the waste in the bog behind the local high school.
Facebook’s externality is political polarization.
The question–as always–is “what should we do about it?”