It seemed like at once a confirmation of everything you knew and a terrifying confirmation that you could trust nothing: not everything you see on Facebook arrived there because it was true, or good.
This week, a report alleged that the humans who worked on Facebook’s “Trending Topics” feature had been instructed to bury news from certain conservative outlets and promote “worthy stories” even if people weren’t talking about them. Facebook denied the reports and said there was no evidence that such behaviour was happening – but some people’s most terrifying worry had already come true, whether or not it was actually false.
But perhaps the bigger misconception was ever believing that there was an unmediated version of Facebook that doesn’t have any biases. Some people appeared to believe that humans intervening would inevitably bring bias, and that those decisions should instead be made by uninterested humans – but algorithms can be just as biased, largely because they are made by people.
Facebook’s algorithms are a huge and somewhat mysterious machine that rule our entire lives. The news this week should be a reminder that they are shaping the way we see the world in never before seen ways.
But it still isn’t really clear how to actually get seen on the service – if it were too clear, Facebook would probably change the algorithm so it wasn’t. The site’s algorithm does seem, or has seemed in the past, to give priority to personal events over news of any kind. In 2014, for instance, BuzzFeed reported that one user had decided to pretend that they had got married – and then used that that to push up posts about the Ferguson protests. Since marriages are prioritised by Facebook’s algorithm, that post was reported to have gone to the top of the feed and then stayed there.
“I noticed that while my posts usually get a billion likes and comments on education stuff, for some reason, my feed is relatively silent about Ferguson Missouri,” the post read. “I have a suspicion that Facebook is hiding these posts from feeds, pretty much in line with how Facebook operates.”
There’s no reason to think that those posts were actually being actively or knowingly hidden by Facebook or people working for it. Instead, they are a consequence of the inevitable bias of an algorithm. Promoting personal life events might seem a good thing, in itself, since they are most likely to be of interest to a person’s friends; but accidentally doing that too much might lead to the news feed leaving out important events in the world.