I am a prolific user of Facebook, and am starting to catch-up in the Twitter and Instagram realm as well. However, Facebook remains the most useful for me, because of the length of posts it allows. I like to share news items that catch my interest, as well as my thoughts on everything and anything under the sun.
For the most part, this actually works rather well. I have a need for self-expression to process my thoughts, I don’t want to overburden any one friend or family member, and I don’t have a significant other–so Facebook meets that need and provides a space to process my thoughts that friends and family can view, but can also ignore when they need to. Since I’m relentlessly honest (thank you, autism!), and one who struggles with things like grief, anxiety, and depression, my posts certainly don’t prevent a sanitized view. I have, and will continue, to make missteps and cause offense—but all I can do is learn from those mistakes and unintentional harms and try to learn from them.
In fact, for the most part, my friends and family have been appreciative. Those who don’t find it up their alley will simply ignore most of my posts, or turn off the “Follow” feature on my account so that they can check in when they have the bandwidth to do so. There remains a significant segment who appreciate my thoughts and opinions on a variety of matters and who also appreciate the largely unfiltered aspect of my social media presence.
Yet what the pandemic has brought to light, in a very real way, is that engagement drives visibility. When friends and family are appreciative of my posts and like or comment to express support that’s a good thing; when their are more contentious disagreements around things like faith and the proper pandemic responses, that ceases to be a good thing.
Over the past few months, Facebook’s algorithm has been reacting to engagement between me and a friend from high school over our differing perspectives on the pandemic by upping the visibility and pushing posts related to that topic towards each of us. I’m not just getting notifications when comments are made willingly on posts; I’m also getting notified when my friend creates a post related to this topic.
There’s an excellent book I read a while back: LikeWar: The Weaponization of Social Media by P.W. Singer and Emerson T. Brooking that did a good job of breaking down the increasing polarization contributed to by various social media sites and algorithms, the conscious manipulation that state actors like China and Russia have recognized and used in those platforms; and the relatively slow response by North American and Western European countries to this new arena.
Singer and Brooking painted a pretty grim picture and made a strong case that we’re already in a war most of us don’t know we’re fighting–yet they also issued a word of hope and a call to arms. The algorithms that privilege engagement don’t differentiate between good engagement and negative engagement. That is, unfortunately, a feature not a bug, as those close to Zuckerberg in various books and documentaries have revealed–part of the philosophy behind Facebook’s development was that open exchange of ideas would lead, in time, to a common good as any false or harmful ideas would be debunked and shamed out of existence. To be fair to Zuckerberg and others, they were hardly alone in this hope–there was certainly that hope in many of the social sciences for some time, and in fact, some still do indeed cling to it. Unfortunately, the political and psychological realities seem to indicate this idea is naive, and it is certainly increasing untenable.
The good news, however, is that the very impersonality of the algorithms means that the choice rests in our hands. If we commit to positive forms of engagement, if we resist our knee-jerk reactions and question which fights our worth it, if we practice checking ourselves before we post–and most of all, if we remain aware of the effect of the algorithms and guard against it–then we can shift the tide and avoid spreading negativity and polarization. This is, unfortunately, even harder on Twitter with the features of Retweets and Hashtags that can lead to fights that count as engagement–yet it is still possible even there.
As always, the choice ultimately resides in our hands; social media can be a wonderful tool of expression and exposure to new ideas and new cultures; but it can also be a amplifier of all the worst human qualities and serve to increase polarization and hostility. I, for one, will keep fighting not to let an impersonal algorithm rule my life–and I encourage you all to do the same.