Social Media Sites, such as Facebook, are a large part of many people’s everyday lives. Of these sites, Facebook is by far the most popular with more than 1 billion daily active users on average (Facebook, 2015). Facebook has seen massive growth in the last decade. According to research by the Pew Research Center (2015), in 2005 10% of online adults used at least one social networking site, with Facebook being just one of many of these. By 2015, 72% of online adults surveyed used Facebook (Duggan, 2015). Facebook now plays many roles including a social network, a source of entertainment, a video sharing platform, and a news publisher.
40% of all news traffic now originates from Facebook (Timm, 2016).
That number is massive and gives Facebook a huge amount of power in terms of distribution of news globally, but especially in the U.S.A.
See this video I made on the Facebook News Feed algorithm, why it exists and how it works:
History has shown the potential influence Facebook can have on its users simply by making small changes to this algorithm. One study by Kramer, Guillory and Hancock (Kramer, Guillory, & Hancock, 2014) showed the influence Facebook can exert on users emotional state through emotional contagion that changing their News Feed to have more positive or more negative posts appear can have. In addition, Facebook can turn this power and influence to focus on more political matters. In 2010, Facebook conducted a test in which they were able to increase voter turnout by 340,000 around the country on election day just by showing users a photo of someone they knew saying “I voted” (Timm, 2016; Markoff, 2012).
With this in mind, the influence Facebook can exert on emotions, opinions and actions, the power it exerts as a news publisher, and the ability it has to filter this news through its algorithm without anyone even knowing it had happened should be cause for concern. Facebook has the theoretical ability to create ideological bubbles by limiting the news it decided to show without anyone being any the wiser (Oremus, 2016). This has come to the foreground in recent discussions on the 2016 U.S. Presidential Elections (Nunez, 2016a, 2016b). This is highlighted by Nunez (2016a) who says,
The reason this issue is such an important one is that Facebook is protected by the First Amendment and the right to freedom of speech and so legally they are entitled to publish and filter whatever news they wish as long as they are not directly working with a political candidate. This means this is an ethical issue completely determined by what Facebook choose to do. Facebook have declared that:
“we as a company are neutral – we have not and will not use our products in a way that attempts to influence how people vote” (Nunez, 2016b; Ranj, 2016).
Anderle, M. (2015, October 15). How Facebook and Google’s Algorithms Are Affecting Our Political Viewpoints. Retrieved April 2016, from The Huffington Post: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/megan-anderle/how-facebook-and-googles-_b_8282612.html
Duggan, M. (2015). Mobile Messaging and Social Media 2015. Available at: http://www.pewinternet.org/2015/08/19/mobile-messaging-and-social-media-2015/: Pew Research Center. Retrieved from PewResearchCenter.
Facebook. (2015, December 31). Company Info. Retrieved April 2016, from http://newsroom.fb.com/company-info/
Facebook. (n.d.). How News Feed Works. Retrieved from Facebook Help Center: https://www.facebook.com/help/327131014036297/
Kramer, A., Guillory, J., & Hancock, J. (2014). Experimental evidence of massive-scale emotional contagion through social networks. PNAS, 111(24), 8788–8790.
Luckerson, V. (2015, July 9). Here’s How Facebook’s News Feed Actually Works. Retrieved April 2016, from Time: http://time.com/3950525/facebook-news-feed-algorithm/
Markoff, J. (2012, September 12). Social Networks Can Affect Voter Turnout, Study Says. Retrieved April 2016, from The New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/09/13/us/politics/social-networks-affect-voter-turnout-study-finds.html?_r=0
Nunez, M. (2016a, April 15). Facebook Employees Asked Mark Zuckerberg If They Should Try to Stop a Donald Trump Presidency. Retrieved April 2016, from Gizmodo: http://gizmodo.com/facebook-employees-asked-mark-zuckerberg-if-they-should-1771012990
Nunez, M. (2016b, April 15). Facebook Says it Doesn’t Try to Influence How People Vote. Retrieved April 2016, from Gizmodo: http://gizmodo.com/facebook-says-it-doesnt-try-to-influence-how-people-vot-1771276946?rev=1460755179651
Oremus, W. (2016, January 3). Who Controls Your Facebook Feed. Retrieved April 2016, from Slate: http://www.slate.com/articles/technology/cover_story/2016/01/how_facebook_s_news_feed_algorithm_works.html
Perrin, A. (2015). Social Media Usage: 2005-2015. Available at: http://www.pewinternet.org/2015/10/08/2015/Social-Networking-Usage-2005-2015/: Pew Research Center.
Ranj, B. (2016, April 15). Facebook promises not to use its product to influence the US presidential election. Retrieved April 2016, from Business Insider: http://uk.businessinsider.com/facebook-promises-not-to-use-its-product-to-influence-the-us-presidential-election-2016-4?r=US&IR=T
Timm, T. (2016, April 19). You may hate Donald Trump. But do you want Facebook to rig the election against him? Retrieved April 2016, from The Guardian: http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/apr/19/donald-trump-facebook-election-manipulate-behavior?CMP=fb_gu
Image: pixabay.com – Public domain, infographic images: http://www.mushroomnetworks.com/infographics/social-media-news-outlets-vs.-traditional-news-infographic