Facebook has much more political and market power than an everyday user may think. Like any digital platform, the popular social network site holds the ability to shape a user’s understanding of the world around them through content based on a simple algorithm, from smaller everyday thoughts to greater political and social issues. The New York Times short documentary problematizes the benefits that Facebook can provide, such as access to information or being a platform for campaigning and businesses. More importantly, it stresses Facebook’s pitfalls of filtering information and how the sites’ algorithm, combined with its “community standards”, can dictate users’ newsfeeds. Ultimately, it contributes to a larger conversation and questioning of the media’s place in knowledge and comprehension of worldly issues and how we choose and/or if we have a choice in how we use media to bolster our own agendas.
To explain Facebook’s algorithm, the site basically lumps together content and people that share the same ideologies and interests (“echo chambers”), which can result in users not having a diversity of thought or being aware of other news and stories. This is especially concerning with elections and political campaigns, particularly in polarizing climates, not to mention spreading of fake news. When internet users are fed content with similar points of view, they are more likely to be perpetually validated in political spheres, thus, lacking full exposure to all sides of a story. However, one can argue that this algorithm is preferred and simply mirrors the formation of similar thinking that happens in real life, such as supporting news outlets that report on issues that you care about or surrounding yourself with friends who hold the same values. While this may be true, there should still be a need to be aware of and understand multiple opinions and stories, which would provide a reality check to some extent. The problem with Facebook is that it alienates you from reality, by creating an artificial “social space” or “community”, further allowing distortion of perception. This kind of distortion was seen in the Czech Republic after the annexation of Crimea. In this case, many Czech people showed up to support the U.S. Military convoy travelling through the Czech Republic, falsely believing there would be massive anti-NATO protests because of the relentless work of the (presumably) Russian troll factory.
The term “digital colonialism” is also mentioned in the documentary. Facebook is aggressively expanding all over the world (and not only virtually – it deploys satellites and other technical infrastructure) promoting “connectivity” as a value and right, while instantaneously creating dependency. In this regard, the social network poses a threat to more restrictive governments who are aware of the mobilizing effect of Facebook, and then react with censoring even more Internet content. We see this reaction in developing countries, where Facebook offers pre-versions of the Internet, with Facebook “demo” news that – in the already restricted information space – create a massive distortion of reality.
With this in mind, there is concern for how one’s Facebook presence and usage transfers to the real world. These thought bubbles, manipulation, and restriction of the news visible to users, can mold people’s reactions in the real, physical world, such as participation in protests and movements as shown by the documentary. Even worse, Facebook’s strong presence can lead to the censorship of the whole Internet in some states, threatening its initial objective of a free flow of information. On another note, the sites global dominance and strong influence suggests that users must strive for success on the platform, which seems especially crucial for entrepreneurs or political campaigners. Ultimately, the site must address key issues regarding rules of conduct, or the lack thereof (contingent on the “community standards”), censorship/access to information, and other grey areas not accounted for through its algorithm. Because the question really is: How is Facebook changing your reality?
published: 13. 11. 2017