Facebook apparently wants to inspire. The company today announced changes to its news feed that should fill the feeds with things that users like, rather than the content that annoys them. In late March, Facebook began introducing filters that allow users to customize their feed, and now the company hopes to learn more about what users like and don’t like, with what appears to be a special focus on moving away from political content and towards ‘inspirational messages’.
The company has been intensively investigated for fueling the flames of political divisions in the US and even playing an outsized role in elections. Facebook’s influence on both issues is largely due to the misinformation spread on the platform. It’s an issue that seems to be directly related to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s taking an aggressive stance in support of 2020’s replacement of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. Facebook hasn’t mentioned a specific alternative that it supports, but it is generally in favor of the government having more control. (and more blamed) for moderating inflammatory speech online.
However, I’m not sure if inspirational posts are the news feed remedy the company should be hoping for. Facebook plans to research users which posts they find inspiring to adjust how the News Feed ranks content. According to Facebook, users want inspiring content because it “motivates them and can be useful outside of Facebook.” It is certainly a nice idea, but who or what people find inspiring can vary enormously. According to a statement provided by Facebook The edge:
For our surveys, we ask people how inspiring they find a particular post in their news feeds, so let them talk about what they find inspiring. According to feedback sessions we held, people have told us that they find content to be ‘inspiring’ like:
It gives them positive, new ideas to do something different
It is information that changes their thinking or perceptions
It evokes uplifting and creative thinking
As Facebook suggests in its original blog post, “a photo of a national park can inspire someone to spend more time in nature,” but it’s not hard to imagine other photos and posts that are much more controversial and similar. receive a rating of “inspiring”. of some users.
Facebook also says it will ask users what topics they’re not interested in, such as cooking, sports, or politics (the three types of people) so it can show them other posts relevant to their interests. The company says it is also testing an easier way to prune posts you might not want to see in your feed through a small “X” in the top right corner of a post.
None of these changes sound like they would actually help with Facebook’s habit of radicalizing users. If something, depending on how heavy News Feed weigh those answers, it can lead people further down which potentially dangerous rabbit holes they are already exploring.
While the plan may seem sketchy, it’s generally good to engage with users about their likes and dislikes in the news feed. Facebook has long seemed focused on maintaining and increasing engagement, at the expense of providing a healthy environment for people to talk to family and friends. This survey approach is a small step in the right direction, but it depends primarily on people actually participating, which is not guaranteed.
Despite this level of progress, Facebook still seems slow and reluctant to make major positive changes to its platforms. The company made a drastic change to its news feed after the US election, boosting authoritative news sources, but only temporarily. Relying on surveys and hiding the distribution problem instead of tackling it directly feels like stepping back.