Facebook’s Polarizing Social Force

Racists become more racist, homophobes get even more homophobic, patriotism becomes extreme nationalism, and the gap between opposing ideologies grows wider and wider.

Opinions, preferences, beliefs, convictions – these are the elements of which our individual identities are constructed. We are creatures of proclivity. We like what we like – that’s our opinion – and we don’t like being asked to consider the possibility that we might be wrong. We have shown time and time again that a familiar falsehood is always preferential to an unpleasant truth.

This most human of traits is quite literally the very basis of the mathematical algorithm that generates your Facebook feed – and it’s fracturing society.

If you just rolled your eyes and thought, “Oh gawd, here we go. More of Glen’s paranoid Facebook-bashing”, please just read another few lines before you click away.

Think about your own Facebook newsfeed for a second … If you like Donald Trump, Facebook delivers pro-Trump news to your feed.  Oh, you don’t like Trump? Then Facebook delivers anti-Trump news to your feed.  If you believe that vaccines cause autism your newsfeed will reinforce this with agreeable news stories that support your anti-vaxxer stance, and vice versa.

You see the bias – Facebook shows us what we like, but we don’t consider what Facebook is hiding from us. Facebook biases our newsfeeds with content that we are most likely to “like” and hides the content that we are least likely to “like”. In marketing terms, a “like” is called “engagement”, and advertisers will spend billions to reach a highly-engaged audience. Great, right? A biased newsfeed full of content that supports our opinions; a newsfeed that validates our beliefs. We get a little surge of dopamine every time we see content that offers even a glimmer of hope that our opinions are correct. We are all dopamine junkies and we will spend every waking minute watching that news feed for something that says, “You’re right”.

So what. We like our dopamine. Where’s the harm in that?

Well, first you need to know two things

  1. Worldwide, 1 in 3 adults has an active Facebook account
  2. Facebook is the world’s #1 distributor of news information

The harm? One-third of the world’s literate, adult population is forming their opinions around information that is specifically tailored to agree with whatever opinions they already held – just reinforcing whatever they already believe. The harm is that racists become more racist, homophobes get even more hate-filled, patriotism becomes extreme nationalism, and the gap between opposing ideologies grows wider and wider. The harm is that Facebook’s nifty algorithm, which exploits the human tendency to be rather narrow-minded, is adding its energy to a wave of social chaos that we haven’t seen in our lifetimes.