The Wall Street Journal says Facebook’s algorithm change in 2018 rewarded outrage. It’s no surprise what happened next. But if you think about it, you’ll see that its evolution towards rage is completely predictable.
The article, by Keach Hagey and Jeff Horwitz, is titled “Facebook Tried to Make Its Platform a Healthier Place. It Got Angrier Instead.” It reveals information from internal memos about an algorithm change that scored posts based “meaningful social interactions.” The score include likes, but placed a higher value on shares, reactions other than likes, and comments. Posts with higher scores were more visible and therefore spread more.
Any of us who use the platform could have guessed something like this was in place. If you want a lot of people to see your post, it helps if it attracts lots of comments, shares, and “wows” or “angry” reactions.
But media companies like Buzzfeed noticed that their posts that were controversial and divisive, like “21 Things That Almost All White People are Guilty of Saying,” got more visibility than other content. It seemed as if the site was designed to spread anger.
Why Facebook makes hate spread
Let’s be analytical here. Assume the following:
- Facebook posts are generally short.
- Some feature photos or videos.
- Posts that get more interaction will get more visibility. (Facebook is generally going to behave this way, although the specific algorithm will define what “more interaction” means.)
Think about short posts people that people react to on Facebook. Such posts have to generate emotion very quickly. Unlike a movie or a TV series or a novel that has time to draw you in, a post on Facebook has about 3 seconds to capture your attention and generate a reaction quickly. What generates a quick reaction? Posts that are:
- Funny (like people doing stupid things on video)
- Cute (like puppies and babies)
- Sexy (like a photo of a scantily clad actor or actress)
- Personal (like a wedding photo or an announcement of taking a new job)
- Controversial (like a political post)
There may be other categories that I’ve missed. But think about what sort of reaction these posts get.
The funny posts will get a bunch of likes and hahas and some shares. But there’s not that much to say about them.
The cute posts will get likes, loves, and shares.
The sexy posts will get likes, loves, and shares.
The personal posts will get likes, loves, and congratulatory notes.
But the controversial posts will generate not just shares and reactions, but a lot more comments. If I post about why not wearing a mask is stupid (or, why wearing a mask is stupid, either way), people will agree with me and disagree with me. They’ll take the time to tell me why I’m right or wrong. More importantly, they’ll take the time to tell the people who post comments why they’re right or wrong. Some of those comments will be nasty. And those will generate nasty replies.
Facebook will promote such interaction-heavy posts above other posts. More people will see them. More people will hate on them. More people will hate on each other. And the hate will spread across the social network.
It’s not true that positive, fascinating, or thoughtful content can’t get engagement. The point is that if you have to create a post that is short and you seek engagement, that short post is likely to be controversial, and is likely to become a locus for anger and hate as it rises in the algorithm.
A factory that spreads noxious pollution isn’t designed to be harmful, but nonetheless, it is. Similarly, even if Facebook says that it is designed to prioritize social interaction, its effluent is a constant stream of hate. Hate engages, which is why it spreads.
Facebook cannot be any way other than this. That’s why it makes you feel filthy and guilty to be part of it. It’s why it’s bad for the world. And it’s why public policy tinkering or breaking it apart into smaller social networks is unlikely to change it.