The biggest social media news story of the week has been ‘The Facebook Files’, a selection of internal documents revealing various investigations into the societal impacts of The Social Network, as reported by The Wall Street Journal.
The full Facebook Files series is available here, and is worth reading for anyone interested in the impacts of social media more broadly, but in summary, the key discoveries of the reports are:
- Facebook has a system in place which subjects high profile users to a different review process than regular users
- Facebook-commissioned studies have repeatedly found that Instagram can have harmful mental health impacts on users
- Facebook’s ‘Family and Friends’ algorithm update in 2018, designed to reduce angst on the platform, actually increased division
- Facebook is not doing enough to address potential harms it’s causing in developing nations
- Anti-vaccine activists have used Facebook to sow doubt and spread fear about the COVID-19 vaccine deployment
None of these revelations in themselves are anything knew – everyone who’s done any research into Facebook and its algorithms would be aware of the harms that it can, and has caused over time, and Facebook itself has said that it is addressing all of these elements, and evolving its tools in line with its internal findings.
But what’s interesting about the Facebook Files is the revelation of what Facebook itself actually knows, and what its own data has shown in regards to these impacts, which also suggests that it could be doing more to address such.
Is it hesitating because of concerns over business impacts? That’s the bottom line of the WSJ investigation, that Facebook knows that it’s causing widespread societal harm, and amplifying negative elements, but it’s been slow to act on such because it could hurt usage.
For example, according to the leaked documents, Facebook implement its ‘Friends and Family’ News Feed algorithm update in 2018 in order to amplify engagement between users, and reduce political discussion, which had become an increasingly divisive element in the app. Facebook did this by allocating points for different types of engagement with posts.
As you can see in this overview, Likes were allocated 1 point each, with other reaction types garnering 5 points, along with re-shares, while comments drove much higher value, with ‘significant’ comments earning 30 points (non-significant comments were worth 15 points). The higher the total value of each post, the more likely it would see more reach, as Facebook used this score to determine increased relevance between connections.
The idea was that this would incentivize more discussion, but as you can imagine, the update instead prompted more publishers and media outlets to share increasingly divisive, emotionally-charged posts, in order to incite more comments and reactions, and get higher share scores for their content. Likes were no longer the key driver, Facebook’s change made comments and Reactions (like ‘Angry’) far more valuable, so sparking discussion around political trends actually became more prominent, and exposed more users to such content in their feeds.
Which highlights another of Facebook’s core issues, that it amplifies exposure to political views that you may not have ever known. You might not, for example, have any idea that your former colleague is also a flat-earth conspiracy theorist, but Facebook shows you, which then, inevitably, pushes each person more for or against each issue, essentially prompting more people to take sides.
Facebook knew that this was happening, that the change was causing increased division and argument as a result, its internal research showed it. But did it reverse course on its decision?
According to WSJ, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg resisted calls to change course with the algorithm yet again, because the update had lead to more comments, addressing a longer-term decline in in-app engagement.
Given that Facebook is used by some 2.9 billion people, and has arguably the largest influence of any platform in history, insights like this are a major concern, as they suggest that Facebook has actively made business-based decisions on issues relating to societal harm. Which, again, is no major surprise – Facebook is, after all, a money-making business. But the influence and power the platform has to guide real-world trends is too significant to ignore such impacts – and that’s only one of the examples highlighted in WSJ’s reporting.
Other revelations relate to Instagram’s impact on young users:
“32% of teen girls said that when they felt bad about their bodies, Instagram made them feel worse […] Teens blame Instagram for increases in the rate of anxiety and depression. This reaction was unprompted and consistent across all groups.”
Instagram is doing more to provide more protection and support over time, but again, the impact, the real world effect here is significant.
Then there’s the way the platform influences people’s responses to key news events, like, say, the COVID-19 vaccine rollout.
“41% of comments on English-language vaccine-related posts risked discouraging vaccinations. Users were seeing comments on vaccine-related posts 775 million times a day, and Facebook researchers worried that the large proportion of negative comments could influence perceptions of the vaccine’s safety.”
Unlike most other businesses, Facebook decisions can significantly shift public perception, and lead to real-world harms, on a massive scale.
Again, we know this, but now we also know that Facebook does too.
The concern, moving forward, is how it will move to address such, and whether the approach it’s taken thus far, in working to keep such revelations from the public, and even leaving harmful changes in place to further its business interests, will be how it continues to operate.
We don’t have any insights into how Facebook operates, as it’s is not a public utility. But at the same time, it really is. Some 70% of Americans now rely on the platform for news content, and as these insights show, it has become a key source of influence in many respects.
But at the same time, Facebook is a business. Its intention is to make money, and that will always play a key role in its thinking.
Is that a sustainable path forward for such a massive platform, especially as it continues to expand into new, developing regions, and more immersive technologies?
The Facebook Files raises some key questions, for which we don’t have any real answers as yet.
You can read The Wall Street Journal’s full ‘Facebook Files’ series here.
Twitter Adds New Spaces Recording and Management Tools as it Continues to Focus on Audio Options
I remain unconvinced that Twitter Spaces will ever become a thing, but Twitter itself seems certain that there’s major growth potential there, as evidenced by its continued push to add more elements to its Spaces offering, in order to lure more listeners across to its Spaces tab, and maximize listenership within its audio broadcasts.
This week, Twitter has rolled out another set of Spaces updates, including permanent recordings (as opposed to them deleting after 30 days), the capacity to save recordings after broadcast, and new details within the Spaces bar at the top of the app.
First off, on permanent recordings – after initially launching its Spaces recording feature to all users back in January, Twitter is now extending the life of those recordings beyond the initial 30 day period.
now your Spaces recordings will live as long as you want them to! starting today, hosts on Android are able to host a Space that lasts indefinitely
iOS is coming up next!
— Spaces (@TwitterSpaces) June 30, 2022
That’ll provide more capacity to attract listeners over the longer term, and keep your conversations alive in the app.
In addition to this, Twitter’s also adding a new listing of your recorded Spaces within your app settings menu, where you’ll be able to play each session back, delete those that you don’t want to keep, or share a recording direct from the list.
That’ll enhance the functional value of Spaces chats, making them more podcast-like, and more of a vehicle for ongoing promotion and audience building – though it does seem to also maybe go against what made audio platforms like Clubhouse so attractive to begin with, in that they were live, in-the-moment chats that you had to be there to catch.
But podcasts is clearly more of the angle that Twitter’s now going for, based on these example screens of another new test in the back end of the app.
As you can see in these images (shared by app researcher Alessandro Paluzzi), Twitter’s also developing ‘Stations’ within the Spaces tab, which would incorporate podcasts into its audio stream, providing even more options for tuning into on-demand audio content within the app.
That could make Spaces recordings even more valuable, and potentially help Spaces broadcasters translate their work into a monetizable podcast process – but do Twitter users really want to tune into podcasts from the app? I mean, we have Spoitify and Apple Podcasts and various other options available.
Could Twitter really become a key hub for audio content like this?
In some ways, it seems unnecessary, but then again, the real-time nature of tweets lends itself to topical discussion, and that could make it a good hub for all of these types of discussions and content, including Spaces, Spaces recordings, podcasts, etc.
And again, that would better facilitate connection between Spaces and recorded audio. It just depends on whether Twitter users will actually come to rely on the app for their latest podcast content.
On another front, Twitter will now also enable iOS users to record a Space when the broadcast is over, even if they didn’t hit ‘Record’ during the session.
Which also means that the ‘REC’ marker would not have been present during the session, alerting participants to the fact that this was being recorded, which could be problematic for some contributors.
In some ways, it seems like Twitter didn’t offer these options initially because it thought that it wouldn’t be able to facilitate the data storage required to keep all of the many recordings in its data banks, but now, with so few people broadcasting, it’s maybe found that this won’t actually be a problem.
A sort of ‘glass half full’ element, I guess.
Finally, Twitter’s also adding new details into the Spaces bar on Android, including additional, scrolling insights into who’s hosting, the topics being discussed, who’s shared a Tweet in the chat and more.
That could entice more users into the session – or at the least, bring even more attention to the Spaces bar at the top of the app by providing more, bigger info.
Though again, I don’t know. It doesn’t seem like Spaces is really catching on, going on the participant numbers in the Spaces stream. And while the addition of podcasts could be interesting, I don’t see Twitter becoming a key app for audio content, especially as the Clubhouse-led audio trend continues to die down.
But maybe the engagement numbers are better than it seems. I mean, you’d have to assume that they are, given Twitter’s ongoing investment in the functionality – through Twitter CEO Parag Agrawal did note last month, that the company had not hit intermediate milestones on its growth plans, based on its investment in new functionalities like Spaces, Communities and Twitter Blue.
Twitter hasn’t shared specific data, so maybe there’s more to it, and that’s why it’s so keen to push ahead with more Spaces tools. But either way, it’s giving it its best opportunity to succeed, and it’s seemingly not done yet with its Spaces development.
Will that, eventually, result in Spaces becoming a thing? Only time will tell.
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