As Facebook Explains Itself to Congress, New Data Shows That Users Have Little Idea How the Platform Works

September 5, 2018, 11:00 AM UTC

Most American adults who use Facebook (FB) don’t properly understand why they see the posts that they see, and many people are taking breaks from the platform or deleting its phone app, according to a new Pew Research Center study.

The survey came out Wednesday, as Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg prepared to testify before the Senate Intelligence Committee about disinformation activities on the social media platform.

Pew’s survey, conducted between May 29 and June 11, showed 53% of Facebook-using Americans aged 18 or over said they did not understand well why certain posts are included in their news feed and other are not. A fifth said they did not understand the algorithmic ordering at all. While 32% said they understand the news feed’s composition “somewhat” well, just 14% said they understand it very well.

A mere 14% of respondents in the age range said they believe ordinary users have a lot of control over what they see in their news feeds, while 28% said they thought ordinary users have no such control. The majority—57%—thought users have a little control, and just 40% of those people said they had made any effort to influence the content they see in their feeds.

Despite Facebook’s revamps of its privacy settings, only 54% of Pew’s respondents said they had tried to adjust their privacy settings in the last year. Those people were most likely to be in the under-50 age brackets.

And, worryingly for the company, 42% said they had taken breaks of several weeks or more from checking the platform. More than a quarter—again, mostly younger users—said they had deleted the Facebook app from their phones.

Over the last year, Silicon Valley whistleblowers have effectively publicized the message that Facebook and peers such as Google try to manipulate people into constantly coming back for more. In the wake of those revelations and the Cambridge Analytica data protection scandal, Facebook’s engagement metrics have been falling—though this may also be a result of Facebook’s algorithms more effectively deprioritizing articles that deliberately try to game the system with clickbaity headlines.

Facebook has recently also been accused by some, such as President Donald Trump, of favoring left-leaning content over conservative content. However, Pew’s research found that Republicans were no more likely than Democrats to be taking breaks from Facebook or deleting the app from their phones.

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