Narrative: Facebook’s Power

Updated: July 1, 2017

This narrative was the subject of the Weekly Narrative Video for the week of June 26-30, 2017. You can see the video on YouTube here, and it’s also embedded at the bottom of this page. 

Facebook is one of the companies with the broadest reach in the world – the week this essay was updated in late June 2017, it announced 2 billion people (or 27% of the world’s population) use it at least monthly, and well over a billion use it every single day. Only Microsoft, with Windows, and Google with Android and several of its websites, can claim similar scale. The big difference between Windows and Android on the one hand and Facebook on the other, though, is that the former merely offer a framework for a variety of individual experiences presented through apps and websites, while Facebook is an experience in its own right.

Facebook controls the time spent in its apps to a far greater extent than Microsoft or Google do within their respective operating systems. It controls the content people see, writing algorithms which prioritize which of the trillions of pieces of content available should be presented to users, and in what order. It is the funnel through which many users now get much of their news content, showing those users more of the things they click on, comment on, and share, and showing them less of the things they don’t respond to. And increasingly it is a home for that content itself, through its own live and recorded video services and other formats like Instant Articles.

All of this gives Facebook enormous power to shape our world and our views of it. None of this is intended to narrow our view of the world, to shape our opinions, or to reinforce prejudices or stereotypes, but by seeking the objective of maximum engagement and time spent, Facebook tends to do all of those things anyway. However, it has shied away from accepting its role as a shaper of our world or even as a media company at all until very recently. Now, it finally seems to be taking its role as a filter more seriously, and is working with news organizations more proactively both to help them find sustainable business models (in response to lower monetization on its platform) and to combat fake news.

However, these efforts place Facebook into a new role – one where it must make decisions about what’s true and false, what’s good for journalism and bad for it – and that will bring it into conflict with some powerful forces. The Donald Trump presidency has already been characterized by distortions of the truth and outright lies, and his election was partly enabled by an alternative view of reality created and fomented by a variety of online publications with various agendas, some of them like Facebook’s own only incidentally fostering some of these outcomes. Setting itself up as an arbiter of fake news will put Facebook in opposition to some of these groups and their acolytes, and that may well make Facebook’s role in all this increasingly complex.

The fact remains that Facebook has a very powerful position in our popular culture, helping to shape opinions and enabling our inherent confirmation bias.  Better that it stop denying this role and begin thinking about concrete ways to help mitigate both the real and perceived effects that has on our society.