November 17, 2021
Facebook’s internal experiments with turning off its News Feed algorithm revealed that users benefit from the often-controversial ranking system. Documents recently parsed by the news media indicate Facebook’s digital formula knows more about what users want than the users themselves when it comes to deciding which posts people see and in what order. The news comes as both the House of Representatives and Senate consider bills that would require social media platforms to offer users the option of disabling what’s known as “automated content recommendations.” The bills follow whistleblower allegations that Facebook’s News Feed is damaging to users.
However, the new analysis of Facebook’s research data may mitigate charges that Facebook prioritizes its own financial upside over user welfare.
“The documents suggest that Facebook’s defense of algorithmic rankings stems not only from its business interests, but from a paternalistic conviction, backed by data, that its sophisticated personalization software knows what users want better than the users themselves,” The Washington Post reports.
At the very least the experiments seem to prove the beleaguered Facebook’s business objectives and the needs of users can sometimes overlap.
Documents suggest that in at least two experiments Facebook turned off its News Feed software, leaving users to see a chronological list of posts from all friends. “Both tests appear to have taught Facebook’s researchers the same lesson: Users are better off with Facebook’s software calling the shots,” WaPo writes.
Since 2009 Facebook has used software to create algorithms that populate its News Feed by predicting which posts will appeal to each user. These are placed at the top of the feed, while posts the software determines less interesting are downgraded.
The system “has evolved in complexity to take in as many as 10,000 pieces of information about each post, has fueled the News Feed’s growth into a dominant information source,” WaPo reports. Although Twitter and Facebook sister-company Instagram are reported to have used unranked feeds until 2016, they — along with TikTok and YouTube — now depend on automated content feeds.
While critics questioned whether people would be better off if they had some control over what social content they see, Facebook has resisted such a change, citing “integrity issues,” according to WaPo, which reports that the decision is based on data about user engagement.
The 2014 internal report “Feed ranking is good” found permitting users to turn off the algorithm “led them to spend less time in their News Feeds, post less often and interact less,” WaPo says, noting that users logged in less frequently, “imperiling the years-long growth in user engagement” that underpins Facebook’s lucrative advertising business.