In September, the Wall Street Journal unveiled many of Facebook’s secrets in the Facebook Files investigation. One of those findings relates to the nature of the 2018 algorithm change, which prioritized content from friends and family over the news. That decision has been partly responsible for today’s polarization, as it was the germ that created information bubbles. With the Journal’s blow and its recent tech failure, Facebook is starting to crumble.
Since the dot.com boom, tech companies have positioned themselves as good and world-caring firms, looking out for their employers and the world. They are here to facilitate our lives, to make them easier. Facebook just wants us to be connected to our loved ones, Amazon to have everything in the palm of our hands, Apple to enjoy luxury goods. And Google, well, Google’s slogan says it all: “Don’t be evil.” For far too long, we have tended to believe them. But that blind faith started crumbling in 2016 after the US elections and Brexit occurred.
The recent Journal scoop shows us that what we have been thinking for these past five years is true—tech companies only care about the bottom line. The investigation encompasses many findings, such as that the platform has a two-tier justice system, that they knew Instagram was creating body-image issues and addiction among teenage girls, and that they were aware of their vaccine misinformation problem and took no action. But these problems barely changed anything within the company, despite its constant pledges to improve the platform. Those issues were somewhat beneficial to Facebook—they were driving traffic. More traffic means more clicks; more clicks mean more ad dollars. Facebook’s conclusion? Those problems are giving us money.
According to the Journal’s findings, one of those realizations came in 2018 when the social media platform announced a change in its News Feed algorithm. It would no longer show news; instead, the service would prioritize content from family and friends. According to Facebook’s founder Mark Zuckerberg, the goal was to improve their users’ well-being by fostering relationships. This was, of course, another ill-fated attempt to portray itself as a savior of the people. The algorithm change was devastating for news outlets, especially native digital companies, which lost a huge chunk of their revenues due to lack of traffic. Layoffs at these companies ensued. But it was all in the name of the users’ happiness.
That argument has since been debunked. The Journal reports that users were interacting less with the platform, so Facebook changed the algorithm. The impact was soon felt. In 2018, Buzzfeed’s founder Jonah Peretti contacted Facebook to tell them how their most divisive content was going viral on the platform, which gave them an incentive to publish more of this content. Facebook staffers were finding similar results—everyone was getting angrier.
However, Zuckerberg resisted any changes as the divisiveness was giving Facebook more money. According to Facebook’s internal documents, news outlets and political parties understood they had to play the game to get their content out. So, they both started producing content that led to outrage and reactions or shifted their policy positions to make them resonate with voters. The harm was done —polarization was already underway. As users only saw the content shared by their friends and family, their worldviews shrunk. They had walked into information bubbles or social media “filter bubbles.” The term, coined by internet activist Eli Pariser, defines the personal universe one lives online. These bubbles have led to today’s political and social problems, such as the increase of vaccine misinformation in the US and the rise of fake news online.
Since the Journal reported this information, Facebook has given half-hearted apologies and many excuses. But the company is in deep trouble, not only because it has destroyed our social fabric but also because its users are abandoning it. For years, Facebook has known about its problems and refused to act because by solving them, the platform would be committing suicide—or so they thought. But that feared decline is closer than we think. As Kevin Roose writes in the New York Times, Facebook is a company in decline, trying desperately to retain its dominance by any means, including harming its clients. The firm has a problem attracting new users, competing with other apps like TikTok and keeping its market share. Roose says it well, “Facebook is in trouble.”
The fact that the platform’s apps were down for more than six hours on October 4 only puts Facebook’s problems at the center of the conversation. Users are not only talking about how the platform fostered polarization, which it did, but they are also rekindling discussions about antitrust legislation, about whether social media services, sometimes considered utilities, should be private. On top of the Facebook Files, its technical problems might weaken the platform beyond repair. One thing is certain—Facebook is changing, as are we.