Social media manipulation still prevalent

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Almost two billion people, one third of the global population, are active monthly users of Facebook. Instagram has 800 million active monthly users. Twitter has almost 330 million monthly users.  

Never before has the world reached this level of interconnectedness. Communication that used to take days, months or even years can now be done in seconds.  

Social media does have tremendous benefits. It has increased the ability of people to communicate across continents, and it helps people connect with those who they likely would have known if not have been for social media.   

However, people use social media not only as a means to communicate but as a news source.  

“As of August 2017, two-thirds (67%) of Americans report that they get at least some of their news on social media – with two-in-ten doing so often,” according to a new survey from Pew Research Center.

People often fail to account for the use of social media manipulation that is prominent on most feeds, where this news is found.   

There are two problems with social media or feed manipulation. The first is that people can choose to eliminate news organizations and see news from certain sources only. This contributes to political polarization because people are never challenged on their beliefs. Their beliefs are simply reaffirmed.  

The second problem of social media manipulation is that people’s feeds can be changed unknowingly. The complicated process of social media manipulation can be more simply understood by focusing on the role of trolls and bots in manipulating news feeds.  

Trolls are humans who comment on multiple posts and share opinions that exclusively align with their agenda. A troll’s goal is to promote their views through the use of controversial and sensationalized hashtags.

Bots, computerized social media accounts, are created to target the trolls’ hashtags and automatically post them on millions of users’ feeds.   

A troll creates a large supply of news, often presenting it in a biased way, and the bots are programmed essentially to spam users with the trolls’ contents.  

While some users will be shocked to find out that their news feed is changed without their knowledge, companies such as Facebook have announced that they have software to change users’ feeds.  

In January, Facebook announced that it would make changes in its content-recommendation software so that posts of family, friends and local news organizations would be prioritized. This change in software will use an algorithm to predict which posts users will like and will prioritize the posts users are expected to like by putting them on the top of a users’ news feed.

These manipulations seem like good changes to social media. However, the problem of accepting feed manipulation is that it will not always be well-intentioned companies who control news feeds. If there are organizations who want to control feeds in order to bias users toward a certain political side they can use feed control to start this process.  

Facebook has already experimented in using feed manipulation to control emotions. In 2014, Facebook tested users by controlling what posts came up on their feeds and then monitored the emotional responses by reading posts. The study found that feed manipulation could, in fact, change user’s emotions.

While this study was widely condemned, it showed that companies have the ability to participate in feed manipulation without users’ knowledge.  

This is a complicated issue because suppressing the company will take away its freedom to use the content software it prefers. However, it takes away the freedom of the users if companies hide certain posts from users without their knowledge.

There is no policy that can solve this complex issue. Users should closely examine the policies of the social media organization they use in order to know whether feed manipulation occurs and, if so, what kind is in place.  

Until a law that protects both the freedom of companies and freedom of users is established, it is left up to social media users to find information on the feed manipulation each platform is using.

Photo Courtesy of The Drum.

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