Facebook unjustly favours the status quo
On Purchasing WhatsApp Mark Zuckerberg released a statement which contained the following line.
Our mission is to make the world more open and connected. We do this by building services that help people share any type of content with any group of people they want.
Openness is a word that is often associated with the internet. The web is universal and decentralised, with open standards allowing us to run open sourced software on open platforms to enable us to view open data. In fact many of the CEOs of the large tech companies publicly fight to keep the internet as free as possible with regards to the open internet and net neutrality. The web in its very essence promises great freedom; a space where anyone who has created a programme or built an app in their dormroom can end up changing the world.
Most individuals who use social media probably feel that this freedom extends to the products designed by the entrepreneurs who took advantage of the openness of the web. It is certainly easy to access a means to share information with the world. In just a few moments anyone can set up a Facebook fan page. I did, during the recent Scottish Referendum. I was disappointed that the mainstream media was at best ineffectual at challenging the proclamations of politicians on either side. So like thousands of others I decided to become my own media. A great deal has been made over the effectiveness of social media during the campaign.
Over the two year run up to the vote many have noticed it has become harder for those who run Facebook Fan Pages to organically reach new users or to even engage with those who have already liked the page.
Facebook claim that organic reach (reach you don’t pay for) is diminishing mainly due to increases in the amount of content that is being shared on the platform. They have made changes to their algorithm to ensure that what appears in individual newsfeeds is best tailored to what the individual wants to see. This is not an argument supported by my newsfeed, which is mainly absolute tedium spouted by people I haven’t seen for 20 years, interspersed with advertisements for online betting.
Others suggest that the choking of fan pages is a deliberate strategy in order to increase advertising revenue. Owners with the means can choose to pay Facebook to promote the page or to promote individual posts.
The main problem I have with these changes from the point of view of a political blogger is that they unfairly disadvantage small groups. Having a system that advantages those with access to large sums of money grossly subverts the open ethos that Zuckerberg and many other internet pioneers expound. It has recently been made public that the Conservative Party is spending £100,000 a month on Facebook advertising. This has helped them build up a large mailing list, a gigantic increase in followers and the ability to connect with those who follow them. No other UK political party has the means to compete with this. Not only that but not being able to connect as easily as those who can afford to pay for it disadvantages new movements from forming. And it hampers the creation of alternative news sources and stifles the propagation of novel viewpoints. In other words, the policy is great for the status quo. A page like mine, which makes no money, will always be fighting an uphill battle. Which is maybe fine in the business world, but seems unethical when we are talking about the discussion of politics and ideas.
In the Scottish context, it makes it easier for the large political parties and media organisations to continue to have the disproportionate influence over us as they did during the referendum campaign. This can’t be healthy for freedom of speech and democracy.
It could be said that the current situation is legitimate in the sense that the rules and algorithms are the same for all. There is nothing in the system stopping the Green Party getting as much exposure as the Tories. It’s just a matter of money, just like everything else in life. However, equality is different from fairness and I’m not sure if start-up companies like Facebook would have been able to get off the ground in the first place if it wasn’t for the open nature of the internet backbone they thrive on and the open source code of many of the applications that they run on.
I’m not arguing that Facebook should show every post from every fan page on every follower’s newsfeed. That would be annoying (although on every fan page post that appears in a user’s newsfeed there is the option to unlike the page or to see fewer posts). And I’m not saying they should should stop accepting money from large organisations in exchange for increased engagement.
But I think it seems reasonable to acknowledge that if a user has liked a page organically, they are probably interested in seeing that page’s posts. Much more likely than those who have liked a craftily worded advertisement which has been placed in their newsfeed without consent. Surely the smart people at Facebook can change their algorithm to enable the spread of, and interaction with, non mainstream views and analysis without having users feeds being clogged up with spam. And if they did then this would resonate more with the openness goals of Mark Zuckerberg. Or do they now just exist to maximise profit by pandering to the rich in front of users with more meagre resources?
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