By now you have read about Facebook’s deletion of posts by journalists at Aftenposten discussing the importance of war photography. The decision to censor very serious journalism was laughably cack-handed.
Here is my take on this.
Facebook’s Hobson’s choice
First, Facebook is trying to navigate two fundamentally incompatible positions.
On the one hand, it claims it is only a tech company and not a media company. In other words, it provides the tools and pipes for dialogue to occur but does not control that dialogue.
This position is derived from two things. The first is, that before Silicon Valley became the establishment, it was grounded in ‘sticking it to the man’, with many of its cultural routes being the counter-culture of the 1960s. (Yes, I know this seems laughable now.) The second is the derivative of the Common Carrier defence, a position used by the US Postal Service and then telephone companies (like AT&T, in the pre-cellular days). Common Carrier roughly argued that as bearers of messages, with no ability to inspect messages, carriers could not be liable for the content they transmitted. Postie could do his job without fear of prosecution for unwittingly delivering a pound of heroin.
On the other hand, to make Facebook a ‘safe space’ (avoiding it becoming a cesspool of the worst of humanity), the site implements ‘community standards.’ Of course, keeping advertisers happy is the primary driver of community standards, not the community quality per se. And so Facebook has a more-or-less opaque process of moderation which bans photos of mothers’ breastfeeding but allows nasty political invective.
Cake and eat it.
Facebook’s statements on ‘community standards’ vs ‘being a neutral platform’ don’t make sense, they are logically incompatible. You cannot have cake and eat it. And, as virtually anyone in the humanities and social sciences knows, any notion of neutrality in social systems is false.
Indeed, Facebook has already made many choices that are not value neutral. Key among those is its newsfeed ranking system which determines which content a user sees or does not see, and when. While Facebook does not decide what to show on an item-by-item basis, the way a newspaper section editor decides, Facebook sets the overall objectives for what gets chosen. This is an explicit choice about content. Isn’t this what an editor does?
At my previous firm, PeerIndex, we used to index the flow of content across Twitter (tens of millions of items per day) in an attempt to find what was valuable, whatever valuable meant to us, through algorithmic means. We knew we were making ‘editorial decisions’ as we designed our algorithms.
- How do you handle mutual self-reinforcing group? These groups would consistently reshare each other’s content, creating noisy popularity signals. Was it neutral of us to introduce weighting mechanisms to down weight the impact of this self-reinforcement? The strongest example here was the huge number of Beliebers who promote everything Justin Bieber posted, dominating and overwhelming any other signal.
- What do you do with homophily? This effect, birds-of-a-feather stick together, is a natural social phenomenon replicated in social networks. You see it show up in those lovely network graphs that demonstrate, for example, that people on two sides of political debate rarely coincide on social networks. But when you do any type of algorithmic curation (as PeerIndex did, and Facebook does), you make explicit choices on whether to accentuate homophily or reduce it. Should your maths foster bridging across groups or accentuates the separation?
Not neutral, just reality
Facebook makes those decisions every day. Not on a post-by-post basis, that would be absurd. But it does in its overall selection of goals, and what tradeoffs it is willing to accept to pursue these. Just because they don’t read each post, they cannot claim they are not making an editorial judgement on how content flows to readers across their networks.
Part of the decision-making lies in its hiring diversity. My cursory LinkedIn search finds more than 4000 engineers in Facebook’s East Palo Alto HQ but fewer than 500 with history degrees (and many of those in junior marketing positions.) Engineers might be happy with an algorithm that identifies a 9/11 conspiracy as a trending news topic,
social scientists (or journalists) would not be.
Burning the man
Facebook finds itself in an awkward position but not one with which we should have much sympathy. In achieving the Silicon Valley dream of a building a successful monopoly and with that dominance comes a growing stream of cash from advertisers, Facebook has become The Man.
Several years ago, Mark Zuckerberg started to describe Facebook as a ‘social utility’. There is no doubt that Facebook has achieved that status of both utility and monopoly. It is time Facebook took this status more seriously.
Disclaimer: Aftenposten is owned by Schibsted Media Group, my employer. This only represents my personal views.