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Why we’re so afraid of Facebook

October 26, 2021, 7:59 PM UTC

On the surface — and maybe this is close to how the company wants to be seen — Facebook is merely a repository, a digital reflection of the human experience. All our pictures are there, but so are our reactions: I like this, this makes me sad/angry/jealous. In some ways, the criticism of Facebook is a criticism of who we are, and the realization that the ugliest parts of being human still break through the most curated social media profile. 

But the recent revelations about Facebook’s inner workings, furnished by whistleblower Frances Haugen, show us how distorted that reflection really is. In the words of one staffer, “we are not a neutral entity.” Thanks to the widening consortium of news outlets that are digging through thousands of pages of partially-redacted material, it’s now possible to get a deeper sense of what’s happening in the black box that is Facebook’s brain. 

One story I’m going to highlight here is from today’s Washington Post. For all the wonkiness that Facebook algorithms allegedly employ, for all the Stanford computer science degrees that are apparently required to understand what’s happening behind the scenes, this story boils down one scary aspect of how Facebook works, and all it requires is kindergarten-level arithmetic. 

Five is greater than one. 

That’s the basic formula behind the spread of anger through the social network. Why? Because the anger emoji that people use to react to Facebook posts is five times more potent than a simple “like” in its algorithm. That means that posts that instill more anger from readers — regardless of whether or not it’s true — will then get shown on more people’s feeds. 

(Before I get any emails about this, yes, I know it’s more complicated than that, and that other factors, like comment length and time spent also play a role).

It’s a deliberate choice that biases strong reactions, no matter what they are, rather than lukewarm ones, to keep people coming back, spending more time on the site, being exposed to ads and, eventually spending their money. That’s how Mark Zuckerberg’s company made $29 billion in revenue last quarter — and it was a disappointment

The revelations keep pointing to one thing that is, at heart, what’s so scary about Facebook. It’s the idea that our emotions aren’t our own, and we have less control over our very thoughts and feelings than we think we do. BuzzFeed reporter Joseph Bernstein channels Hannah Arendt — the German philosopher who coined the phrase “the banality of evil” — on this idea by pointing out that it’s in a giant social media company’s interests to sell the idea that, hey, our ad systems are so good they can nearly destroy democracy in a few years. Wouldn’t you want to use an engine that powerful to get people to buy jeans?

That may be true. And perhaps, as Arendt points out, people can’t change their political opinions as easily as they can be persuaded to buy soap. But isn’t that actually an argument better suited to the anger-baiting stories that appear on Facebook, rather the distribution machine that Zuckerberg created? Misleading stories, propaganda, clickbait —all these can make us feel something like anger, even for a little while, even if it’s alien to our nature. What’s scary is how we keep coming back to the site that hosts it, how it can feel inescapable, even when we know we don’t want it.

Kevin T. Dugan
@kevintdugan

NEWSWORTHY

Big beautiful meme stock. Digital World Acquisition, the blank-check company that’s bringing Donald Trump’s forthcoming social media gambit to the public markets, tumbled 28% at one point in trading today. The company, which has mysteriously little by way of solid plans or metrics, has become the latest stock to ignite the passions of day-trading Redditors who previously pumped up GameStop, AMC, and other so-called “meme stocks.” The company’s whipsawed through the markets, jumping from less than $10 a share to over $130, and is now back to the $67.

TikTok talk. Michael Beckerman, head of public policy at TikTok, denied during a Congressional hearing that the company gives data to China — after years of scrutiny over its parent company’s relationship with Xi Jinping’s government, according to Reuters. The social media app, owned by Chinese company ByteDance, was once at the center of a standoff between the Trump Administration and China, with the previous U.S. administration pushing TikTok to divest part of its operations to Microsoft, and then Oracle, in deals that never materialized. 

Net neutrality on a moving train. The Biden administration appointed Jessica Rosenworcel to lead the Federal Communications Commission, a sign that the White House is gearing up to fight to reimplement net neutrality rules and expand broadband access, according to The Verge. Rosenworcel, who will be the first FCC chair, is a long-time advisor at the agency, and has been a supporter of keeping net neutrality, which blocks Internet service providers from charging more for certain content.

FOOD FOR THOUGHT

Congratulations, Elon Musk. The Tesla CEO rocketed past Jeff Bezos yesterday as the world's wealthiest individual, with a personal fortune of $289 billion. According to Bloomberg, Musk's holdings are now greater than the market cap of ExxonMobil or Nike. I suppose if he wanted to to buy either of those companies he would have, uh, have the funding secured

The surge came after Hertz said it would buy 100,000 Tesla Model 3s — a pretty large order considering that Tesla has delivered fewer than 2 million cars since 2016. While this is unlikely to make renting a car any less of a pain, it made Tesla's stock go vroom by about 13% on Monday, before inching even higher today.

Tesla is, as the New York Times points out, worth about as much as every other major car company in the world, combined. Wedbush Securities analyst Dan Ives says that Tesla's battery tech and its factories support this, but the strong brand, inextricable from Musk’s personality and salesmanship, is also a major factor. 

And this is really what it comes down to, isn’t it? Musk has a track record of hot air — the “funding secured” tweet, the fake solar panels. He’s even gotten in on the joke, doing the fake robot thing. But really, what it comes down to is that he sells an image of a viable future through technological progress. People want to buy it. 

IN CASE YOU MISSED IT

No matter how bad the Facebook whistleblower allegations get, Mark Zuckerberg remains untouchable by David Meyer

Facebook’s damaging document leak is expected to continue for 6 more weeks by Sophie Mellor

GM is adding 40,000 electric vehicle charging stations in the U.S. and Canada by Chris Morris

UBS is making huge profits off billionaires—but it won’t touch crypto by Christiaan Hetzner

Adobe sees NFTs and the metaverse as opportunities for collaboration and growth by Dina Bass and Bloomberg

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BEFORE YOU GO

Ground control to Major Jeff. Billionaires rushing to get to the lowest band of “outer space” have been met with a healthy amount of skepticism about the overall plans for their operations. Are these space companies much more than vanity projects if it’s really just a race to say who got there first?

So a new “space business park,” to be built by Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin, sounds like it has enough functional use to answer those criticisms. Will it be enough to silence the doubters? Of course not! And why should it? First, we need to figure out, what exactly is space business, anyway? 

 

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