Opinion

How We Became Addicted to the Facebook Junk Feed

Facebook's algorithm is designed to please us, get us hooked and make us click 'Share,' and newsrooms everywhere are adopting its rules of the game

Mark Zuckerberg, co-founder and chief executive officer of Facebook Inc., speaks at a press event in Palo Alto, California, July 6, 2011.
David Paul Morris / Bloomberg

It wasn’t Facebook’s 2 billion users or some anonymous, biting blogger, nor was it a grass-roots uprising on the internet that exposed Hollywood and Harvey Weinstein. The behavior of the serial molester and the conduct that's been going on for generations in the movie industry was ultimately exposed by two journalists at The New York Times, backed by their editors and the owners of the paper, which still possesses the unique kind of culture needed to tackle such difficult, painful investigations.

In a country as vast as the United States, journalism like that of The Times, which not only embarks on difficult investigations but has the power to influence, is concentrated in a handful of media outlets, almost all of them classic print newspapers.

The print industry is slowly and systematically going the way of the dinosaurs. For years it relied on classified ads to subsidize much of the news room, but print ads have gone extinct, supplanted by internet advertising. Then came Google and YouTube. People abandoned the printed press and with them, so did advertisers.

Then came Facebook. It its first decade, it looked like an amazing technology that democratized the market of information and ideas. At last, anyone could break into the public consciousness, not just the established press, which all too often serves governments, tycoons and those of Harvey Weinstein’s ilk.

In the last three years, that picture has been reversed. Facebook has gradually morphed from a solution into a problem. At first, Facebook and Google became a duopoly in the advertising market – no traditional media could possibly compete with the sheer mass of users and the data they collect. Nobody in telecommunications or commerce could offer advertisers and companies the kind of data and depth that these giants can offer.

What happened next was worse. Google, and especially Facebook, gradually began to turn into the main and most important distribution outlets for news organizations. The ability to set an agenda, hierarchy, meaning and context for most news items and analyses is weakened when distribution goes through one channel, especially one that's based on an algorithm whose main goal is to sell advertising and addict the users.

Officials from media companies and EU representatives attend a G7 session on Ischia island, Italy, October 20, 2017.
ANDREAS SOLARO/AFP

Facebook’s algorithm gives an advantage to certain posts – the ones that users are more likely to share. These are often more extreme and less nuanced – mainly the type of post that already conforms to the user’s viewpoint. Facebook’s algorithm is designed to please us, get us hooked and make us click “Share.” It isn’t designed to challenge us or to expose us to other opinions.

News rooms in Israel and elsewhere are gradually adopting the rules of the game that are handed down by their main distribution channel: Short, extreme, annoying, provocative, partisan content – that’s the sort of thing people share. The sort of thing that’s likely to go viral.

Facebook is destroying the media, and for lack of choice, the media is playing along.

We are addicted to the Facebook feed because it isn’t a news feed – it’s a junk feed. People get addicted to cigarettes and salt and sugar, and Facebook is no better than any of them. It’s much worse. It not only threatens the mental and social health of the many communities whose members are addicted to gazing at the screen in a stupor instead of living in the real world, it also threatens politics, telecommunications and our democratic institutions.

Just this month the historian Niall Ferguson wrote that Mark Zuckerberg is the biggest, strongest media baron of all time, 10 times stronger than William Randolph Hearst ever was.

But unlike most media barons, Zuckerberg and his ilk deny they’re any such thing, or that their companies are media companies. They call themselves technology platforms, as though they were some sort of neutral tool that doesn’t wield dramatic influence over the entire market for news, ideas and information – as though their algorithms weren’t designed for very particular purposes (usually to maximize advertising revenues and deter competition).

Zuckerberg and his friends on the other major internet platforms constitute the five biggest monopolies in history. Democracies can contend with monopolies in three ways: break them up in order to reduce their power, enabling competition and weakening their political influence; supervise them to prevent them from abusing their clout; or nationalize them. At the moment, the option in the table is no. 2 – supervision. But the first one – breaking them up – must be taken into account. Otherwise it’s only a matter of time until the third possibility, nationalization, comes up.

These companies are too big, important and strong to leave in the hands of a handful of businessmen, however stellar they may be – even if their names are Mark, Sergey and Larry and they go to work wearing sneakers and hoodies.