Why am I seeing this, Facebook?

PHOTO: Unsplash/Joshua Hoehne

OPINION — In an effort to combat misconceptions about creeping on its users in real life, Facebook has released a feature called “Why Am I Seeing This Post”.

Over the past year, Facebook has tried to distance itself from allegations that it listens to people’s conversations.

We’ve all been there. One day you’re making an off-hand joke about babies, and the next day you’ve got pregnancy or parenting ads spawning all over your News Feed. “Why Am I Seeing This Post” is supposed to give users more context about their Facebook content, and provide easy menu shortcuts to access their News Feed control settings.

Photo: Unsplash/Glen Carrie

In a private press briefing earlier this week, News Feed Product Manager Ramya Sethuraman rejected the rumours that Facebook spies on its users, sells user data, or benefits from fake news (“We don’t do that,” she simply asserted).

She explained that Facebook uses “tens of thousands” of “signals” or individual data points to decide what to show you.

Great... because that sounds so much better?

Honestly, audiovisual surveillance would be less invasive (yet simultaneously more straightforward) than signals, because this is the dystopia we live in. While there are swarms of signals that Facebook can use to prioritise which of your family members’ racist posts are most relevant, these three are most important:

  1. Who posted it? (A friend? Acquaintance? Family member?)

  2. What type of post is it? (Video, text, et cetera)

  3. How popular is the post? (Including device and operating system information)

A look at how Facebook adds context to why you are seeing a postPhoto: Facebook

These factors also influence its powerful advertising platform, which is arguably Facebook’s biggest current winner. Signals are raw, pliable data, which can be applied to any number of opaque operations and targeted audience experiments that we aren’t privy to. Listening to me complain on the phone about why pineapples don’t belong on pizza would yield far less usable data than “tens of thousands” of signals collected from private individual behaviour on an app.

The idea behind “Why Am I Seeing This Post” is to make Facebook a nicer place. In Sethuraman’s words, “we want people to feel good about what they see,” which raises questions about whether Facebook employees fully understand public perception of the product they are working on. Facebook’s scramble to regain control of its social media behemoth seems like too little, too late.

Sethuraman has been working on the News Feed for five years, which means she’s painfully aware of how the company has fumbled over privacy and surveillance missteps. She must, on some level, be aware that Facebook is going through a public image nightmare right now, and that the general public might not be comfortable with Facebook’s long reach into our private lives. Even when speaking about signals, she admits that “ranking doesn’t always get things right,” and that Facebook has done a “poor job” of educating its users about its control settings.

The subtext of the press briefing was also that Facebook’s core user group — that is, not a bunch Gen Z kids — is older, less tech-savvy, and in need of a step-by-step explainer as to why they are seeing something in their feed. This goes hand-in-hand with the problem of boomers being the first to share fake news. It is, truly poetic, then, that there might soon be more dead Facebook users than living ones.

Mark Zuckerberg speaks at  F8 2019Photo: Facebook

Since Sethuraman is on the Facebook News Feed team, she had no definitive answers on whether “Why Am I Seeing This Post” will make its way to Instagram. When asked about whether “Why Am I Seeing This Post” was a band-aid attempt to regain public confidence, she simply said, “We have a long way to go in regaining trust.”

If Facebook really wants to regain trust, perhaps they should tighten up their abysmal security, do better by their content moderators, and for the love of god, get rid of the Nazis.

alexisong@asiaone.com

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