Facebook Tweaked Its News Feed, Saw 'Unhealthy Side Effects'

Internal docs show 2018 changes to enhance user engagement made things angrier, more polarizing
By Jenn Gidman,  Newser Staff
Posted Sep 16, 2021 9:10 AM CDT
WSJ : Facebook's News Tweaks Led to 'Increasing Liability'
This Oct. 25, 2019, file photo shows Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg speaking at the Paley Center in New York.   (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan, File)

(Newser) – Facebook execs likely aren't looking forward to the latest copies of the Wall Street Journal. Earlier this week, the paper published a damning story about Instagram on the platform's harmful effects on teen users (and how the parent company knew about it), as well as an article on Facebook's "secret elite," who appear to be exempt from the platform's usual rules. Now, a new addition to the Journal's "Facebook Files" series, this time focusing on a 2018 algorithm shift at the social media giant that was meant to up social interaction and enhance bonds between friends and family. Instead, the paper reveals after reviewing an "extensive array of internal company communications," it did the opposite, transforming Facebook into "an angrier place."

story continues below

  • Why the algorithm shifted: Facebook discovered that comments, likes, and shares on its platform had been sliding downward through 2017. To remedy this, and to pull people away from too much of what CEO Mark Zuckerberg called passive media consumption (especially of video), the company in 2018 tweaked its News Feed to drive users to posts that would prompt more user engagement. "It would reward posts that garnered more comments and emotion emojis, which were viewed as more meaningful than likes," the internal docs showed.
  • The positive effects: Interactions started to pick up. And when close connections shared content, that content was deemed more trustworthy and meaningful than that shared by more casual acquaintances, one memo noted.
  • The negative effects: That engagement came with a downside. "Our approach has had unhealthy side effects on important slices of public content, such as politics and news," data scientists wrote in one memo. "Misinformation, toxicity, and violent content are inordinately prevalent among reshares," researchers also warned. One of the data scientists went so far as to call Facebook's approach "an increasing liability."
  • Zuckerberg's reaction: Perhaps most worrisome was the apparent response of Zuckerberg. When data scientists on the company's integrity team came up with potential fixes to remedy the outrage cycles—such as reducing the spread of content not originally posted by a user's friends or someone they followed—Zuckerberg broadly "resisted ... because he was worried they might hurt the company's other objective—making users engage more with Facebook," per the Journal.
  • Political aftermath: In a 2019 internal report, Facebook researchers said they heard from unnamed political parties in the EU, Taiwan, and India that said the algorithm change had "forced them to skew negative in their communications on Facebook," just to spur engagement, per the Verge.
  • Publisher ire: The change affected media groups as well. Jonah Peretti, CEO of BuzzFeed, tells the Journal that after the shift, BuzzFeed articles that prioritized "fad/junky science," gross pictures, and "extremely disturbing news" were what went viral on Facebook, and that his staff felt "pressure to make bad content." The change seemed to reward divisiveness, not "content that drives meaningful social interactions," Peretti wrote in a 2018 memo to a top Facebook official.
Much more here.

How they're trying to fix it (Read more Facebook stories.)

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