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Want a Better Facebook? Get Smart Friends

Bypass the algorithms and make your friends list work like an old-time newspaper.

Shannon Rupp 22 Jan

Shannon Rupp was a Tyee contributing editor. For permission to reprint this article please contact the author: shannon(at) 

The latest changes to Facebook make it clear that it’s more important than ever for the news-reading public to have smart “friends.”

That’s because the social media site with two billion users has decided to change the company’s mysterious algorithms that help (or hinder) you discovering news online. Now the bots will be giving preference to posts made by people rather than businesses.

The reason you’ve been hearing a lot about it is because those changes affect publishers who have become increasingly reliant on Facebook and other social media to get their content under your nose.

Not that social media were working especially well for publishers. But newspapers in particular have come to rely on what might be called the digital equivalent of 1920s newsies shouting headlines at the streetcar terminal. Meanwhile, the company is fed up with distributing news because it isn’t profitable for the shareholders (and worse: Mark Zuckerberg is being blamed for fake news.)

Facebook is in the datascraping business, so it wants the scroll-and-like crowd to spend more time posting photos of their children and talking about their vacations so it can sell marketers better consumer profiles.

By the way, if you want a glimpse of how Facebook really works, and what it knows about you beyond what you thought you told it, have a look at Data Selfie. It reveals how Facebook tracks your tastes and interests, and how it predicts things like your political leanings.

Facebook notes the pages you visit, how long you remain on them and which friends you interact with most. That’s telling. And that, in turn, influences everything else that pops into your stream.

Data Selfie offers a fairly accurate snapshot of your politics and interests unless your Facebook usage is impersonal (as mine is).

This is the fundamental flaw in online advertising and algorithms in general. Facebook confuses my research with me. Bots are like clueless adolescents who assume paying attention to something is the same as approving of it. I pay a lot of attention to quack therapy, for example, although it’s fair to say I don’t approve of it. Nevertheless, Facebook ads are encouraging me to do everything from healing my energy to shoving rose quartz up my nether regions.

I could tell Facebook these ads are spam and they would stop appearing. But since ads are priced by the number of Facebookers they reach, I’m delighted to see the quacks wasting their money promoting their wares to me instead of someone who might buy them.

For the moment, people are still more discerning than bots. Which is why having smart friends can turn your Facebook feed into something that recalls the mid-20th century newspaper-of-record. Yesterday’s newspapers were a sophisticated info-distribution system, not least because they told readers about all the things they needed to know before they even knew they needed to know them.

Part of the genius of those postwar papers was that they gathered news from a wide range of sources and printed an equally wide range of opinion, all under one masthead. They valued objectivity, a term that was later twisted to mean vague things like fairness and balance. But before the monopoly newspaper era of the 1980s, going back to the 19th century, the term objectivity meant to test for accuracy.

Reporting accurate information is a service that is all-but-lost in the digital era. Many news outlets have found more profit in flogging particular socio-political views, as the boom in so-called fake news websites has shown. (That also explains how so many for-profit news outlets, like the New York Times, kept insisting there was no way Clinton could lose the 2016 election. Because it’s costly to tell subscribers some true thing they do not want to hear, such as: Trump has a shot!)

But I always want to know what’s what, even if I don’t like it (and when it comes to news, I rarely like it). So I’ve set my Facebook stream to work sort of like those old papers-of-record. That is if you crossed them with an 18th century coffee house, where everyone convenes to chat over the news. (And plot revolution.)

My “friends” — many of whom I’ve never met — have replaced section editors in selecting what is interesting about any subject. They post articles from a huge range of sources about the chaos at city hall, the economic meltdown in Venezuela, or the crisis at the New York City Ballet.

My feed reveals a wide range of interests. Food security. Nutrition science. Profs gone wild. Syria. Refugees. Ballet. Books. Film.

Some of my friends are reporters, of course. But between you, me and the Internet, I find the most interesting articles are posted by people in different walks of life who have some enthusiasm for a particular topic.

My Facebook page gives me something that once made general interest papers so valuable: it alerts me to things going on in other corners of the world, literally and metaphorically.

To keep that quality info coming, I also do what an editor used to do by curating my own content. Online, that means “blocking” the time-wasters. You know who I mean. The ranters. The conspiracy theorists. The people who can’t distinguish satire from news.

Facebook lurrrrvvvs the time-wasters. That’s because the bickering reveals all sorts of things about the people doing it — politics, education, age, income, trade — and those nuances are what marketers are looking for when they buy data. That’s why you see the bots pushing the brawls featuring the long discussion threads into your feed.

I also make a habit of avoiding posters who favour dodgy sites with names like “raw story” or “babe” because if you associate with them in any way, you’re also telling the algorithms that you like that sort of thing. Before you know it, you’re seeing loony articles claiming climate change is a matter of opinion.

All of which is to say, forget the latest Facebook edict if news is what you want to see in your feed. You don’t have to sit back passively and use Facebook (or any social media) the way the corporation wants you to use it.

You can get around the latest algorithm tyranny simply by choosing to pay more attention to people who post high-quality articles.

It’s not a perfect solution, of course. In a perfect world I would subscribe to two newspapers, three magazines, and have skilled journalists with a commitment to accuracy doing the newsgathering, sorting and factchecking for me.

But until those glory days of the mid-20th century return, I think we have to adopt this slogan: friends don’t let friends read junk. No matter what the media barons are trying to foist on us this week.

© Shannon Rupp. For permission to reprint this article please contact the author: shannon(at)  [Tyee]

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