Facebook Learned Nothing

Table of Contents


This document was written by me, emsenn, and is released for the benefit of the public under the terms included in the "License" supplement. It was made possible with financial contributions from humans like you. Please direct comments to my public inbox or, if necessary, my personal email.

This document was written when the events it discusses were contemporary. Information in it may now be incorrect, and opinions presented may be out of date.

Facebook Learned Nothing

After facing criticism from users, politicians, bureaucrats, and shareholders, Facebook's CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced his personal 2018 New Year's Resolution, to "fix Facebook." In previous years, Zuckerberg has publicly announced his resolutions, and his followthrough. He's visited every U.S. state, built an artificial intelligence for his home, ran 365 miles, and learned Mandarin. So I had some hope that he'd be able to complete this one - after all, as CEO, "fixing Facebook" should be a core part of his job.

About a week and a half into 2018, Zuckerberg announced the first change, which would be to reduce the priority of public content in our newsfeeds. The goal was to reduce branded posts from 5% to 4% of the content - which doesn't sound like a big difference, mostly because it isn't. The problem posts on Facebook weren't advertisements for Audible and fabric softener.

Yesterday, January 19th, he announced the second big change: "to make sure the news you see, while less overall, is high quality."

Academics, journalists, and armchair pundits are all still trying to make sense of what happened to "the news" over the past few years, and there are a lot of different schools of thought. Some explanations are simple (more literacy, more written stupidity), and others are incredibly complex (we're living out the result of a 1960s Soviet intelligence operation.) But they all rely on the same premise:

People are truly terrible at figuring out the truth.

And we are. We don't know what we don't know, we think we know more about the things we know a little about, and we're almost unable to follow a logical flow if we have even the slightest emotional connection to the subject.

However, Zuckerberg has faith that people can do it, this time… with the help of surveys. From his announcement:

We decided that having the community determine which sources are broadly trusted would be most objective. Here’s how this will work. As part of our ongoing quality surveys, we will now ask people whether they’re familiar with a news source and, if so, whether they trust that source. The idea is that some news organizations are only trusted by their readers or watchers, and others are broadly trusted across society even by those who don’t follow them directly.

Now, there's some problems off-the-bat with this sort of data collection: self-selection bias, aware observer bias, and so on. But there's also a more specific problem: Gallup (and others) already did a study on this, and the results weren't good. Here's some of their key findings:

  • While 54% of Democrats view the media favorably, 68% of Republicans do not.
  • Republicans have less trust in the media to provide accurate & politically balanced news.
  • Four in ten Republicans think accurate news reports which cast a politician or political group in a negative light are always "fake news."
  • 67% of Republicans view there as a "great deal" of political bias in the news, versus 26% of Democrats.
  • When asked to name an objective news source, 60% of Republicans said Fox News.
  • Those with annual household incomes of >$100,000 rank the media's trustworthiness at 32/100, versus a mean 38.5/100 among lower income households.
  • Only 55% of Republicans view choosing news sources that align with your own politics as problematic, versus 61% of Democrats (and 67% of Independents). (Interestingly, it is very liberal people who are the most likely to only consume news from agreeable sources.)

And so on. My point here is not to pick on Republicans, but to highlight that not only do different political demographics have vastly different definitions of things like objectivity and truth, but that different demographics have differing opinions on whether or not media bias is even important.

Facebook won't be able to resolve these differences through user surveys any more than they were able to do it with algorithms. I actually don't think Facebook can do anything about it - the solutions need to come from news outlets.

There's optimism to be found in that Gallup study. Americans are getting more and more critical of existing news sources, while simultaneously consuming more news. Basic economics indicates that with this increased demand for good news sources, we should see a supply to match.

But getting there will take some time - and will take each of us doing our part to be good consumers of media… like maybe not saying that Fox News is an objective news source, or discounting anything disagreeable to our politics as fake.



This document was made possible with contributions from humans like you. Thank you! I currently accept contributions through the following platforms:

If there is another service through which you'd like to contribute, please send an email. Please note that in accordance with my personal directives #003 and #018, I release all useful information I create for free, so financial contributions do not entitle you to access to any "exclusive content."


Copyright 2019 emsenn

Permission is hereby granted, free of charge, to any person obtaining a copy of this document and associated media files (the "Document"), to deal in the Doftware without restriction, including without limitation the rights to use, copy, modify, merge, publish, distribute, sublicense, and/or sell copies of the Doftware, and to permit persons to whom the Doftware is furnished to do so, subject to the following conditions:

The above copyright notice and this permission notice shall be included in all copies or substantial portions of the Software.

The Document is provided "as is," without warranty of any kind, express or implied, including but not limited to the warranties of merchantability, fitness for a particular purpose, or noninfringement. In no event shall the authors or copyright holders be liable for any claim, damages or other liability, whether in an action of contract, tort, or otherwise, arising from, out of or in connection with the Document or the use or other dealings in the Document.

Date: 2018-01-20

Author: emsenn

Created: 2019-05-03 Fri 21:37