Facebook and Its Secret Policies

The Wall Street Journal reported this week that Facebook had studied for two years whether its social network makes people more polarized.

Researchers concluded that it does, and recommended changes to the company’s computerized systems to steer people away from vilifying one another. But the Journal reports that the company’s top executives declined to implement most of the proposed changes.

Fostering open dialogue among people with different viewpoints isn’t easy, and I don’t know if Facebook was right in shelving ideas like creating separate online huddles for parents arguing about vaccinations. But I do want to talk over two nagging questions sparked by this article and others:

  • Are politics rather than principles driving Facebook’s decisions?

  • Facebook said it didn’t want to make important policy decisions on its own. Then why did it make these important policy decisions alone and in secret?

These questions are important because Facebook is not an ordinary company. Whether we are aware of it or not, the ways the company designs its online hangouts shape how we behave and what we believe.

In an extreme example, Facebook has acknowledged that it failed to prevent its social network from being used to incite a genocide in Myanmar. That’s why it’s crucial that Facebook makes good policy choices in fair-minded and transparent ways.

On the first question, The Wall Street Journal reported that Facebook decided not to make most of the suggested changes aimed at reducing the spread of divisive content in part because more material from the right than the left would have been affected, and the company was worried about triggering claims (again) that the company was biased against conservatives.

If Facebook made these decisions on the merits, that would be one thing. But if Facebook picked its paths based on which political actors would get angry, that should make people of all political beliefs cringe.

It also unnerves me that multiyear research into Facebook’s impact on the world stayed entirely inside its walls. What happens at Facebook is too important to stay secret.

It’s a good principle — but not if Facebook believes it only when it’s convenient.

The world of streaming video has inherited many of the entertainment industry’s money feuds and other battles. That is one reason it’s confusing to find something you want to watch.

Why are there four versions of HBO? Why do you need to consult a flow chart to watch TV?

Well, it’s messy for companies to transition from the rabbit-ears era of home entertainment to the Netflix age. Some of this is natural in any industry evolution. But the HBO tangle also shows that we are at the mercy of companies fighting over the reordering of entertainment.

For the first time, companies like Disney and HBO’s parent company AT&T are trying to control everything from words on a script page to the pixels on a TV screen. It’s as if Ford made all the parts that go into its cars, assembled them in its factories and sold vehicles from its showrooms. (For non-car people, that’s not how it works.)

This has set off fights. Cable companies that have been the primary gateway to our living rooms don’t want to give an inch to companies like AT&T, which wants you to watch “Friends” (a show it owns) on digital spots that it alone controls.

“Friends” and “Star Wars” will increasingly be locked behind their corporate bosses’ digital walls. If you want to see both, you’ll probably have to figure out who owns them and pay two different companies for the privilege of watching. Isn’t TV fun and easy?!

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