Now, hours of testimony and thousands of pages of documents posted by Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen has renewed the examination of the impact of Facebook and its algorithms on teens, democracy and society in general. It has also raised the question of just how much Facebook, and perhaps similar services, can or should rethink using a multitude of algorithms to determine what images, videos and news we see.
But the algorithms that choose what we see are at the heart of not just Facebook, but many social media platforms that have followed in Facebook’s footsteps. TikTok, for example, would be unrecognizable without the content recommendation algorithms running the show. And the larger the platform, the greater the need for algorithms to filter and sort content.
Algorithms do not disappear. But there are ways Facebook can improve them, experts in algorithms and artificial intelligence told CNN Business. It will, however, require something that Facebook has so far seemed reluctant to offer (despite talking points from executives): more transparency and control for users.
What’s in an algorithm?
An algorithm is a set of steps or mathematical instructions, especially for a computer, telling it what to do with certain inputs to produce certain outputs. You can think of it as pretty much a recipe, where the ingredients are the starters and the end dish is the exit. On Facebook and other social media sites, however, you and your actions – what you write or what images you post – are the entrance. What the social network shows you, whether it’s a post from your best friend or an advertisement for camping gear, is the result.
At their best, these algorithms can help personalize feeds so that users discover new people and content that matches their interests based on their past activity. At worst, as Haugen and others have pointed out, they run the risk of directing people to disturbing rabbit holes that can expose them to toxic content and misinformation. Either way, they allow people to scroll for longer, which potentially helps Facebook make more money by showing more ads to users.
Many algorithms work together to create the experience you see on Facebook, Instagram, and elsewhere online. This can make it even more complicated to find out what is going on inside such systems, especially in a large company like Facebook where several teams are building various algorithms.
“If a higher power were to go to Facebook and say, ‘Correct the algorithm in XY’, that would be really difficult because they have become really complex systems with many inputs, many weights, and they are like several systems working. together, “said Hilary Ross, senior program manager at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University and head of its Institute for Restarting Social Media.
“You can even imagine having your say. You might be able to select preferences for the type of things you want to optimize for you,” she said, such as how often you want to see content from your immediate family, high school friends or baby photos. All of these things can change over time. Why not let the users control them?
Transparency is essential, she said, because it encourages good social media behavior.
According to Sasha Costanza-Chock, director of research and design at the Algorithmic Justice League, social media could also be pushed towards greater transparency. They envision this to include fully independent researchers, investigative journalists, or people within regulatory bodies – not the social media companies themselves or the companies they hire – who have the knowledge, the skills and legal authority to demand access to algorithmic systems to ensure laws are not violated and best practices are followed.
James Mickens, professor of computer science at Harvard and co-director of the Institute for Rebooting Social Media at the Berkman Klein Center, suggests looking for ways to audit elections without revealing private information about voters (such as for whom every person voted) for information on how algorithms can be audited and reformed. He thinks this could provide clues to creating an auditing system that would allow people outside of Facebook to provide oversight while protecting sensitive data.
Other indicators of success
A major barrier to meaningful improvement, experts say, is social media’s current focus on the importance of engagement, or the time users spend scrolling, clicking, and otherwise interacting with posts and ads on. social networks.
Changing that is tricky, experts said, although several agreed that it may involve taking into account the feelings users have when using social media and not just the time they spend there.
“Commitment is not synonymous with good mental health,” said Mickens.
Can Algorithms Really Help Solve Facebook Problems? Mickens, at least, hopes the answer is yes. He thinks they can be optimized further towards the public interest. “The question is: what will convince these companies to start thinking this way? ” he said.
In the past, some might have said this would require pressure from the advertisers whose dollars back these platforms. But in his testimony, Haugen seemed to bet on a different answer: pressure from Congress.