Facebook Executives Dismissed Efforts to Make the Site Less Divisive

The Wall Street Journal has a very detailed article that examines why Facebook is such a toxic place to visit. Several efforts were made internally to make Facebook less divisive, but executives shut down or weakened those efforts.

Facebook had kicked off an internal effort to understand how its platform shaped user behavior and how the company might address potential harms. Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg had in public and private expressed concern about “sensationalism and polarization.”

But in the end, Facebook’s interest was fleeting. Mr. Zuckerberg and other senior executives largely shelved the basic research, according to previously unreported internal document and people familiar with the effort, and weakened or blocked efforts to apply its conclusions to Facebook products.

Years ago, I quit using Facebook because it was making me irritated and unhappy. My relatives, most of whom do not share the same political views that I do, suddenly all seemed to feel the need to post angry and hurtful political posts. It was right around the 2016 U.S. presidential election between Barack Obama (Democrat) and Mitt Romney (Republican). Based on the information in The Wall Street Journal article, it appears that divisiveness was seen by Facebook as a “feature”, not a “bug”.

A 2018 presentation pointed out that Facebook’s algorithms “exploit the human brain’s attraction to divisiveness”. The presenter warned that if left unchecked, Facebook would feed users “more and more divisive content in an effort to gain user attention & time on the platform.” It appears that observation was ignored.

A Common Ground team proposed that conversations in groups, that had been derailed by hot-button issues, could be salvaged if a moderator moved that argument to a temporary subgroup. Another option was to tweak recommendation algorithms to suggest a wider range of Facebook groups than people would ordinarily encounter. Those ideas were not implemented.

An idea called “Sparing Sharing” would have reduced the spread of content disproportionately favored by “hyperactive users”. Its effects would be heaviest on content favored by users on the far-right and far-left. It would have given middle-of-the-road users more influence. It was dismissed because executives insisted the change would harm Girl Scouts who were trying to sell cookies.