Recent changes announced by social
media giant Facebook have roiled the
media community and raised questions
about privacy. The company’s updates
include a higher level of news feed priority
for posts made by friends and family and
testing for new end-to-end encryption
software inside its messenger service.
As Facebook now boasts more than a
billion users worldwide, both of these
updates are likely to impact the way the
world communicates. Prior to the
company’s news-feed algorithm change,
a 2016 study from the Pew Research
Center found that approximately 44
percent of American adults regularly read
news content through Facebook.
UVA Today sat down with Siva
Vaidhyanathan, the director of the
University of Virginia’s Center for Media
and Citizenship and Robertson Professor
of Media Studies, to discuss the impact of
these changes and the evolving role of
Facebook in the world. Naturally, the
conversation first aired on Facebook Live.
Q. What is the change to Facebook’s
News Feed?
A. Facebook has announced a different
emphasis within its news feed. Now of
course, your news feed is much more
than news. It’s all of those links and
photos and videos that your friends are
posting and all of the sites that you’re
following. So that could be an interesting
combination of your cousin, your
coworker, the New York Times and Fox
News all streaming through.
A couple of years ago, the folks that run
Facebook recognized that Facebook was
quickly becoming the leading news source
for many millions of Americans, and
considering that they have 1.6 billion
users around the world, and it’s growing
fast, there was a real concern that
Facebook should take that responsibility
seriously. So one of the things that
Facebook did was cut a deal with a
number of publishers to be able to load
up their content directly from Facebook
servers, rather than just link to an original
content server. That provided more
dependable loading, especially of video,
but also faster loading, especially through
mobile.
But in recent weeks, Facebook has sort of
rolled back on that. They haven’t removed
the partnership program that serves up all
that content in a quick form, but they’ve
made it very clear that their algorithms
that generate your news feed will be
weighted much more heavily to what your
friends are linking to, liking and
commenting on, and what you’ve told
Facebook over the years you’re interested
in.
This has a couple of ramifications. One, it
sort of downgrades the project of bringing
legitimate news into the forefront by
default, but it also makes sure that we are
more likely to be rewarded with materials
that we’ve already expressed an interest
in. We’re much more likely to see material
from publications and our friends we
reward with links and likes. We’re much
more likely to see material linked by
friends with whom we have had comment
conversations.
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Credit: University of Virginia
This can generate something that we call
a “filter bubble.” A gentlemen named Eli
Pariser wrote a book called “The Filter
Bubble.” It came out in 2011, and the
problem he identified has only gotten
worse since it came out. Facebook is a
prime example of that because Facebook
is in the business of giving you reasons to
feel good about being on Facebook.
Facebook’s incentives are designed to
keep you engaged.
Q. How will this change the experience
for publishers?
A. The change or the announcement of
the change came about because a
number of former Facebook employees
told stories about how Facebook had
guided their decisions to privilege certain
things in news feeds that seemed to
diminish the content and arguments of
conservative media.
Well, Facebook didn’t want that
reputation, obviously. Facebook would
rather not be mixed up or labeled as a
champion of liberal causes over
conservative causes in the U.S. That
means that Facebook is still going to
privilege certain producers of media –
those producers of media that have
signed contracts with Facebook. The
Guardian is one, the New York Times is
another. There are dozens of others.
Those are still going to be privileged in
Facebook’s algorithm, and among the
news sources you encounter, you’re more
likely to see those news sources than
those that have not engaged in a explicit
contract with Facebook. So Facebook is
making editorial decisions based on their
self-interest more than anything, and not
necessarily on any sort of political
ideology.
Q. You wrote “The Googlization of
Everything” in 2011. Since then, have we
progressed to the “Facebookization” of
everything?
A. I wouldn’t say that it’s the
Facebookization of everything – and
that’s pretty clumsy anyway. I would
make an argument that if you look at five
companies that don’t even seem to do the
same thing – Google, Facebook,
Microsoft, Apple and Amazon – they’re
actually competing in a long game, and it
has nothing to do with social media. It
has nothing to do with your phone,
nothing to do with your computer and
nothing to do with the Internet as we
know it.
They’re all competing to earn our trust
and manage the data flows that they think
will soon run through every aspect of our
lives – through our watches, through our
eyeglasses, through our cars, through our
refrigerators, our toasters and our
thermostats. So you see companies – all
five of these companies from Amazon to
Google to Microsoft to Facebook to Apple
– are all putting out products and
services meant to establish ubiquitous
data connections, whether it’s the Apple
Watch or the Google self-driving car or
whether it’s that weird obelisk that
Amazon’s selling us [the Echo] that you
can talk to or use to play music and
things. These are all part of what I call the
“operating system of our lives.”
Facebook is interesting because it’s part
of that race. Facebook, like those other
companies, is trying to be the company
that ultimately manages our lives, in
every possible way.
We often hear a phrase called the
“Internet of things.” I think that’s a
misnomer because what we’re talking
about, first of all, is not like the Internet at
all. It’s going to be a closed system, not
an open system. Secondly, it’s not about
things. It’s actually about our bodies. The
reason that watches and glasses and
cars are important is that they lie on and
carry human bodies. What we’re really
seeing is the full embeddedness of human
bodies and human motion in these data
streams and the full connectivity of these
data streams to the human body.
So the fact that Facebook is constantly
tracking your location, is constantly
encouraging you to be in conversation
with your friends through it – at every bus
stop and subway stop, at every traffic
light, even though you’re not supposed to
– is a sign that they are doing their best
to plug you in constantly. That
phenomenon, and it’s not just about
Facebook alone, is something that’s really
interesting.
Q. What are the implications of that for
society?
A. The implications of the emergence of
an operating system of our lives are
pretty severe. First of all, consider that we
will consistently be outsourcing decision-
making like “Turn left or turn right?,”
“What kind of orange juice to buy?” and
“What kind of washing detergent to buy?”
All of these decisions will be guided by, if
not determined by, contracts that these
data companies will be signing with
consumer companies.
… We’re accepting short-term
convenience, a rather trivial reward, and
deferring long-term harms. Those harms
include a loss of autonomy, a loss of
privacy and perhaps even a loss of
dignity at some point. … Right now, what
I am concerned about is the notion that
we’re all plugging into these data streams
and deciding to allow other companies to
manage our decisions. We’re letting
Facebook manage what we get to see and
which friends we get to interact .

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