Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Algorithms Have Consequences: #Ferguson, Facebook, and Algorithm Bias

If you're a frequent user of both Facebook and Twitter you've probably noticed that each platform prefers a specific type of content. The 140 character tweet necessitates a preference for quick and frequent updates--the type of content that is well-suited to breaking world or national news. Facebook prefers a local sensibility--content that deals specifically with people's immediate lives, like the birth of a child or a wedding anniversary. 

Of course, both platforms share these preferences--to an extent. Users frequently post about childbirth and wedding anniversaries on Twitter and Facebook users sees a fair share of national and world news update. However, the difference between the platforms are often more evident than the similarities. Recent news events have highlighted these differences. And guess what, SEO aficionados? It all comes to down to the algorithms.

When Robin Williams, the beloved comedian, died of an apparent suicide on August 11, both Twitter and Facebook were flooded with remembrances and condolences. We particularly enjoyed this quote from Robin William's performance in The Fisher King:

"There’s three things in this world that you need: Respect for all kinds of life, a nice bowel movement on a regular basis, and a navy blazer." 

However, two days before, on a Saturday evening, when an unarmed black teen, Michael Brown had been fatally shot in Ferguson, MO, only Twitter seemed to be talking about it. This made sense, at the time. After all, Twitter is the space for breaking news. However, two days later, at the time of Robin William's death, Facebook had yet to spark a conversation about the hashtag that had seemingly dominated Twitter: #Ferguson. 

Writing today, eleven days after the death of Michael Brown, the disparity is all the more apparent: Twitter is consumed with #Ferguson, yet Facebook is focused on ice buckets. This photo from Anup Kaphle, posted in The Washington Post, is essentially true:

"Above: , on Twitter
Below: Rest of America, on Facebook"
~Anup Kaphle

In its article about the varying ways Twitter and Facebook have responded to #Ferguson, The Washington Post reveals the importance of Facebook's algorithm in guiding the conversation:

"Your Twitter feed isn’t controlled by an algorithm. You see the tweets of people you follow in real time. But Facebook uses a complicated algorithm to determine what ends up in your news feed. They won’t reveal exactly how it works, but the company has said it ranks the content based in part on what you’ve liked, clicked or shared in the past."

Some believe that this amounts to algorithmic censorship, and that this censorship poses a threat to human rights.

After all, I share the same mix of friends on Twitter and Facebook, yet my recent post about Ferguson garnered far less attention, say, than a recent post about my wedding anniversary. Ferguson is almost completely absent on my Facebook timeline. Why?

In an eloquent post about the subject, Zeynep Tufekci writes:

"But I wonder: what if Ferguson had started to bubble, but there was no Twitter to catch on nationally? Would it ever make it through the algorithmic filtering on Facebook? Maybe, but with no transparency to the decisions, I cannot be sure. Would Ferguson be buried in algorithmic censorship?"

The point Tufekci makes strikes to the heart of the human element of algorithms. As we noted before, in our post "On Algorithm Bias and the Important Work of Organic SEO":

"We end to think about algorithms as neutral, but really, although engineers base algorithms on mathematical principles, most of the judgements about those principles are exactly that--judgements, made by biased humans."

Tufekci believes this is a human rights issue because Facebook, and other social media platforms, have the power to squash these conversations before they reach the "bubbling" point. As Tufekci writes, "Algorithms have consequences."

As we noted in our prior post about algorithm bias, this is precisely why we believe that the work of an SEO specialist is noble. As the organic SEO specialist works to understand the algorithm, he or she is working like a journalist, trying to make the Internet a more democratic place--a place where your Facebook feed is not necessarily dominated by the news Facebook prefers to highlight, but by the news that its users prefer to highlight.