Is Facebook Too Influential?

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Facebook has become one of the most powerful, influential forces online. There are 1.44 billion monthly active Facebook users, 65% of whom use it daily. About 6% of the total time web users collectively spend on the Internet each day is devoted to perusing Facebook. In March 2013, the social network drove 21.25% of all traffic that sites received.

Now, people are questioning the impact Facebook’s influence is having after a new study from the Pew Research Center for Media and Journalism revealed a staggering 61% of millennials get their political news from the social network.

Like most things across the Internet, users’ news feeds are controlled by an algorithm. It predicts the type of content users would most like to see, the friends whose updates they are most interested in, and more.

Essentially, it acts as a gatekeeper. It controls what users see, and what users don’t see. Any small tweak to the algorithm could entirely shift the content and news that users are exposed to when they scroll.

In fact, Facebook recently came under fire for doing exactly that. A number of in-house scientists examined whether news feed users were subjected to differing political points of view or not. Although the study said that it was up to the users themselves to determine just how much they were exposed to differing points of view, experts pointed out that Facebook’s own data found otherwise. For one test group, the algorithmically filtered news feed actually did affect the amount of alternative political commentary and news to which Facebookers were exposed.

Not only did the study confirm that Facebook’s algorithm has a very real effect on what news users do and don’t see, it also revealed that Facebook believes a user’s experience is independent from the site, that the algorithm and the user experience aren’t intrinsically connected, when in fact they very much are. In other words, Facebook believed that the experience of using the social network was separate from the social network itself — which is rather like saying the experience of riding a bike wasn’t contingent on the actual bike.

This filter is already having a real-world effect, too. Investigative journalist Eliot Higgins has already complained that the site, which removes content that breaches its internal standards, was pulling pages belonging to Syrian rebel groups even though they were the only source of important information about the ongoing civil war in that country.

Although the effect of Facebook’s gatekeeper status is still unknown, one thing is for fairly certain; the social media network has already begun influencing people’s worldview, and it will likely gain more even influence as time goes on.

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