Michael Casey, one of the speakers at yesterday’s TEDx in Lausanne, thinks the world needs something better than Facebook.
Casey, a former Wall Street Journal journalist and cryptocurrency expert based in New York, thinks the social media giant now has so much impact on our lives it needs to become a public good, not something opaque, run by a small group of unelected people, built around the whims of advertisers.
He is concerned by the growing number of people who get their news via Facebook, news that is filtered by algorithms designed to drive the social media giant’s profits.
Facebook’s stated mission is “to give people the power to share and make the world more open and connected”, however it is clear from their annual report that advertisers underpin the firm’s existence. In 2016, 97% of its revenue came from advertising.
Facebook’s algorithms create so-called echo chambers, distinct versions of perceived reality that reinforce narrow beliefs, stifle consensus and polarise politics and society. They create the emotion-driven engagement that advertisers want, not what is best for society.
A Forbes article describes how Facebook can help advertisers target vulnerable younger users by looking at their images and text. A 23-page leaked document, first reported by The Australian, sets out a list of emotional states Facebook can help identify for advertisers. The list includes: “stressed, “worthless,” “insecure,” “defeated,” “anxious,” “silly,” “useless,” “stupid,” “overwhelmed” and “a failure”, according to Forbes.
Another problem is the lack of transparency. How the company censors is unknown, determined not by society but by a small group of unelected people based in Menlo Park.
Casey thinks we should avoid censoring because it can make martyrs of those censored. Shutting them out of social debates makes them stronger and prevents society from developing resistance to ideas it might find repugnant.
Another TEDx Lausanne speaker, Anja Wyden Guelpa, Chancellor of State in Geneva, agrees on the importance of transparency. In her talk she described Geneva’s open-source e-voting system, a world first. There was a lot of resistance to posting the system code on the open source site GitHub. However she is convinced the upside gained from transparency is greater than the increased risk of hacking.
US filmmaker Daniel Klein has come up with a novel approach to break down Facebook echo-chambers. He has created content which he pushes, using targeted Facebook advertising, to an audience that wouldn’t get it automatically. He says he does not want to preach to the choir. He wants to get into other echo chambers.
His project is funded via crowd sourcing, which means some in society are paying Facebook, via adverts, to make media more balanced. But does it make sense to pay Facebook to achieve this?
In the meantime, while Michael Casey’s open source vision for social media is being debated, we’ll go ahead and post this on Facebook. What its algorithms will do with it is unknown…