Facebook’s dodgy history with advertisement is one of the most researched online algorithms. The proprietary algorithm supposedly optimises Facebook posts making it more likely that they will reach people who are predisposed to liking them. For a moment, let us leave the ethical issues with tracking each user’s digital footprint on Facebook and subsequently customising their feed aside. Instead, let us focus on what happens as a result. Despite its initial success at ‘connecting people’, Facebook has become far too large to simply be restricted to interactions between friends and family. Instead, it has turned into a gigantic propaganda machine, rife with disinformation fed to the masses by people from all corners of the socio-political spectrum. From conservative pages allegedly operated by Russian bots to politicians actively spreading fake news in their ads, it is clear that Facebook has gone beyond a measure for social interaction. There is now a plethora of political discourse to go around, but due to its optimisation technology, Facebook creates an echochamber around each user.
An echochamber is essentially a space where existing beliefs are amplified and reinforced by repetitive communication. When you couple such a system with unchecked and often fake news, each user is put at the risk of confirmation bias. The way this works is that Facebook optimises each ad and pushes it out to people who are more likely to resonate with the ideals put forth by the ad. During the American Presidential elections, for example, conservative christians viewed far more ads from Donald Trump and Republican Party while liberals were far more likely to see ads from the Democratic Party.
Alan Mislove, a Computer Science Professor at Northeastern University, sums up most ethical concerns when he says, “There’s very little accountability, and very little transparency, about how these algorithms determine what that optimisation looks like.” Further, there is the problem of restricting the user’s view of any situation to just a singular perspective. This manifests itself in people never looking at the bigger picture, and instead falling prey to rumours put forth by one side. This reinforces prejudices that are often problematic and makes it far easier for propaganda to affect people and their choices. It is clear to see that this situation is not desirable and due to existing copyright and patent laws, the only party that can put forth a solution is Facebook itself.
Don’t hold your breath.