Facebook: There’s a limit to algorithms’ power

Published 9:52 am Thursday, October 27, 2016

The Mankato Free Press

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency

Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg says the social media behemoth is “a tech company, not a media company.” But the line between the two is blurred, if it exists at all, and as Facebook and other “tech companies” become ever more involved in handling and creating content, the line will be even more difficult to discern.

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Zuckerberg wants to avoid making the sorts of editorial judgment calls newspapers and broadcasters habitually make: What to run, what to leave out, what to emphasize. A given newspaper has only so many column inches; a given newscast has only so many minutes. But Facebook has no such physical limits; theoretically, it can publish everything.

But no individual could possibly sort through it all; it would be like drinking from a fire hose. Facebook uses algorithms, mathematical equations, to create individualized “Trending” lists for each of its users.

This would, if and when Facebook gets the math dead perfect (it knows full well it hasn’t) perhaps give users exactly the stories the users think they want to see without human involvement in the process. Perfect objectivity! But as any human editor knows, there are stories and issues that need to be seen. The closed loop, in which the consumer is never exposed to facts and ideas that vary from his or her expectations, is already a factor in political gridlock; this may well simply reinforce the barricades.

Beyond that, Facebook still wants to have standards, and those rather defy the precision of equations. One well-publicized example from recent weeks: Facebook first blocked, then allowed, the posting of the famous “napalm girl” photo from the Vietnam War as a violation of its nudity policies. Facebook says now it will consider the newsworthiness and public interest when deciding on graphic content. How it will do that by the numbers is unclear.

Another example: Last week the Wall Street Journal reported that some in Facebook wanted some Donald Trump posts calling for banning Muslim immigration removed as hate speech. The internal debate went all the way to Zuckerberg himself, who reportedly decided that: yes, the posts violated Facebook’s policies but no, he’s a presidental candidate and we won’t block his posts.

This raises the spectre of different standards for prominent users. If Jane Doe is blocked from saying X on Facebook, should Trump be allowed to say it?

This is not a First Amendment issue. Facebook is not the government. This is an editorial decision, and Facebook has the right, even the duty, to make editorial decisions. An estimated 44 percent of Americans get some of their news from Facebook, so those decisions matter. And whether Zuckerberg likes it or not, such decisions are not mathematical.