Social networks have profound political, social, and psychological impacts, says expert
The release of the “Facebook Papers” this week confirms that Facebook is very much aware of the fact that its social networks have had real life impacts on both individuals and groups – including how people talk about politics, who gets to say what on social media, and how people feel about their own body image, says Virginia Tech multimedia expert Mike Horning.
“Exposure of the “Facebook Papers” tells us that Facebook seems okay with allowing some of those harmful effects to occur. It seems to privilege the profitability of the algorithms over people,” says Horning.
“Facebook’s own researchers found that their algorithms often directed people towards viral content,” explains Horning. “Groups who wanted to perpetuate misinformation sought to increase the virality of that content and by doing so it was essentially gaming the algorithm to spread more misinformation.”
Horning also says that the Facebook Papers reveal that the social network is very interested in studying the effects of social media on tweens for the purposes of advertising and making them long-time users of their social networks.
“What is perhaps most concerning is their research among young teen girls,” says Horning. “Their own internal documents suggest that a fairly large number of teens report that Facebook apps increase their struggle with mental health and make them feel worse about themselves.”
“Facebook’s use of algorithms to privilege viral content often ignore the unintended consequences of those algorithms,” says Horning. “Perhaps this will lead individuals to ask deeper questions about how certain types of content wind up in their social feeds.”
Mike Horning is an associate professor of multimedia journalism in the Virginia Tech School of Communication and associate director of social informatics research in the Center for Human Computer Interaction at Virginia Tech. His research examines how communication technologies impact social attitudes and behaviors, with a current focus on the impact of “fake news” and misinformation on our democratic processes. His expertise has been featured in The Hill, on Sinclair Broadcast Group, and in a number of other media outlets.
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