Explained | Algorithm that runs Facebook's News Feed

Explained | The algorithm that runs News Feed on Facebook

Before delving into what discrepancies are in the News Feed, we will see how the algorithm works

For the last few weeks, former Facebook employee, Frances Haugen has been doing a series of interactions with media outlets and government agencies, highlighting serious mishandling by Facebook in curbing hate speeches on its social media platform.

To corroborate her claims, whistleblower Haugen released an internal research document that showed how flawed the algorithmic recommendation of Facebook's News Feed is. 

Before delving into what discrepancies are in the News Feed, we will see how the algorithm works.

In the early days on Facebook, people used to go to an individual's profile page aka 'Facebook wall' to see what they are up to and exchange pleasantries. Facebook in a bid to improve the user experience, introduced News Feed in 2006. It automated the process so that people find and see activities of all friends and family members in one place. Then, came the 'groups' feature in 2010 that allowed people to form closed communities with similar interests. They could discuss things online or arrange meet-ups in designated places offline. Besides conducting social work such as clearing garbage in the streets, it also helped organising political and religious gatherings.

With the addition of features such as sharing photos, videos, live streaming, and introduction of like button,  emoji reactions (love, angry, caring, laughing, wow, sad),  post sharing, and comment options, Facebook's algorithm began to use more complex machine learning models to co-relate all the aforementioned data points to rank the billions of content in its inventory. It is intelligent enough to predict which content is most likely to be viewed or liked by individuals and place them on the people's News Feed. The ranking is a continuous process and gets changed every time 2.89 billion-plus active users refresh their Facebook page on their mobile or on the desktop computer.

For instance, if a Facebook user has an interest in Cricket follows a particular official team page or even a fan-made page and watched a match in the night. The next day, the person's News Feed will be populated with content such as match highlights, special batting performance, bowling spells in the form of videos, images, even news articles shared by his friends, family members,  or by an acquaintance (friend of a friend or family member) or published by a news firm he/she follows on Facebook.

It applies the same for people following a movie celebrity, they will be seeing more of the content related to the actor's reel and real-life reports on their News Feed. The ultimate aim of Facebook is to make the people stay on its social media platform as long as possible and there, place ads to generate revenue. FYI, Facebook and others such as Google, Amazon used to go beyond their apps and track users' search activity on phones, even real-time location details to flood targeted product ads on their respective platforms. Apple, earlier this year, released the iOS 14.5 software update that gave more power to iPhone users to stop apps from tracking all their activities.

Must read | Apple brings App Tracking Transparency and more with iOS 14.5 update

It should be noted that most of the Over-The-Top (OTT) apps such as Netflix too, use a similar but less complex algorithm to study the person's behaviour in terms of genres of movies, TV series they binge-watch. Also while setting up a profile, it asks for the type of language, genres they like the most. And, accordingly recommend new content that is more likely to appease the subscriber and spend more time on its platform. 

Must read | Netflix tests 'Play Something' feature on mobile

In Facebook's case, the News Feed has the potential to cause harm. It claims users can report to Facebook against a person or group who violates its social media platform's policy. But, as noted above, the internal research study by Facebook says, the algorithm has discrepancies in terms of curbing misinformation, hate speech, and celebrations of violence.

In 2019, researchers at Facebook opened three test profiles-- one Karen Jones was created with liberal person's attributes. Soon enough, it received recommendations on the News Feeds with 'Moscow Mitch' memes created by anonymous critics who make a fun parody of Republican Senator Mitch McConnell. The latter is known for blocking bills to protect American elections from foreign interference.

The second fake account was named Carol Smith with an inclination towards conservative principles and it began to see more content related to the QAnon conspiracy.

For the uninitiated, QAnon conspiracy revolves around false claims made by unknown individuals, known by the name 'Q', that a faction of satanic and cannibalistic pedophiles conspiring against former president Donald Trump.

The third test profile was for India and the latter's News Feed was populated with inflammatory speeches and violent graphic content related to India's clash with Pakistan at the border.

The researcher's memo in the document (available with CBS News) reads-- "I've seen more images of dead people in the past 3 weeks than I've seen in my entire life total. The graphic content was recommended by Facebook via recommended groups, pages, videos, and posts".

Taking cognizance of the research document released by Frances Haugen, the Ministry of Electronics and IT (MeitY) has reportedly asked Facebook to furnish details on how its News Feed algorithm work and what steps the company has taken to curb circulation of misinformation, hate speeches, and violent content.

It should be noted that the Indian government earlier in the year introduced new IT (Information Technology) and social media intermediary guidelines. 

The government made it mandatory for social media companies to hire local compliance officers in addition to grievance officers. The firms are obligated to receive, acknowledge and resolve complaints within a month.

In a country like India, which seems to be politically and religiously polarised than ever before, Facebook can play a crucial role in uniting than dividing people.  

Now that an internal research study has found loopholes in the algorithm, Facebook has to genuinely try to fix the News Feed, and also increasing the human reviewers count, will further help in the timely removal of violent hate campaigns before it's too late.

Must read | Bengaluru riots: War of words with Facebook pal 'triggered' offensive post

With more than 34 crore active users, India is Facebook's biggest market. US and Indonesia come second and third with 200 million and 140 million active users, respectively.

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