Monday, November 21, 2016

Facebook's challenge to democracy

Last update: Monday 11/21/16
Facebook now reigns as the unchallenged master of social network analysis, which is why Facebook can make such good guesses when it asks, "Do you know ZZZ?" Of course Facebook uses machine learning, or comparably powerful algorithms, to maintain the social networks of each of its more than 1.65 billion active users.

Facebook also uses its extensive network analysis to estimate which news items its members want to read and from which sources ... and which news and sources they don't want to read. Pew reports that over 40 percent of U.S. adults currently get most of their news from Facebook. I would not be surprised to see that figure rise to 60 percent or even 80 percent in the next five to ten years.

Unfortunately, Facebook hasn't been able to identify "fake" news very well ... yet. But when Facebook improves its algorithms, I am sure it will identify "fake" news as defined by most people, e.g., stories made up by greedy Macedonian teenagers with lively imaginations. But as anyone with a working understanding of the sociology of knowledge is aware, "fake" news includes everything that is inconsistent with a user's fundamental beliefs, ideologies, dominant paradigms, etc.

For example  "Liberals" think the New York Times is objective, whereas "Conservatives" think the Times is a Liberal propaganda rag that distorts the truth every day by the topics it presents -- "All the news that's fit to print" -- and the ones it omits. Example: the Times covers complaints from Black students about graffiti on the portraits of Black professors at their universities, but under-reports demonstrations by pro-life activists at abortion clinics.

The good news about news before Facebook, BFB, was that people were reminded every now and then why they selected their news sources, as in,  "I read news stories in the Wall Street Journal, but I never read its editorials because they are too conservative. So I also read Bloomberg every day to be sure that the Journal hasn't left out important stories that don't fit its conservative mindset"

But in the world after Facebook, AFB, most people will merely log on and get "all" the news, without occasional reminders that they have implicitly told Facebook what they wanted to read and what they wanted to reject, without reminders that large segments of our society view things differently than they do. The current existential crisis of "Liberals" after the unexpected election of a "Conservative" will occur more often and with greater anguish for Liberals ... and more often and with greater anguish for Conservatives

In the world AFB most readers will have little of no awareness of other people's perspectives whenever those perspectives fall outside of the narrow range that Facebook's machine learning algorithms correctly estimated their readers would tolerate. So most readers will live in anxious bubbles that suddenly burst from time to time. The world AFB will be far less stable than BFB. Can democracy survive in such an unstable world?

Roy L Beasley, PhD
DLL Editor