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Bob Doucette: Turning the tables on Facebook's toxic algorithm

Bob Doucette: Turning the tables on Facebook's toxic algorithm

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Congress Facebook Whistleblower

Former Facebook employee and whistleblower Frances Haugen testifies during a Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington.

When Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen testified before Congress, she laid out the details that we’ve long known: Facebook does a great job at selling outrage and doesn’t care to stop.

The price has been steep. Try to count the number of reasonable people you know who’ve wandered down Whackadoodle Road because of what they’ve consumed on Facebook.

Think about how bad actors have used the platform to radicalize millions. Now look at the results of that radicalization.

Calls for congressional action against the social media giant have been growing louder.

Who knows what will become of that; Facebook has about 2.8 billion users worldwide and is a trillion-dollar company. Those numbers have power.

That power has repulsed many. Some have quit the platform. But for hundreds of millions of others, cutting Facebook is a bridge too far. Their best contacts are on the site, and for many (me included), Facebook serves as a de facto repository of photo albums and the memories they carry with them.

Then there’s the business side. For various projects I’ve worked on, the reach Facebook offers still dwarfs other social media platforms.

Beyond that, Facebook has planted solid footprints that have disrupted a bunch of businesses. Facebook Marketplace shoved aside Craigslist. It swallowed beloved apps like Instagram, WhatsApp and more.

Mark Zuckerberg’s creation is nearly as ubiquitous and necessary as Google.

This presents a tough choice: Divorce yourself from the Facebook universe or grudgingly accept its ills to stay plugged in.

So, how do we fix it? More importantly, how do you fix it?

As it turns out, you can game the system. Facebook’s algorithm is driven by what you watch, click, share, comment on and react to. A couple of years back, I had an online dustup with one “friend” taking potshots at another friend’s wife and kids after creeping on the guy’s page and then posting insults about his family. What started as a benign post about tax policy devolved into something ugly. Facebook loved it. It easily got over 100 comments. That guaranteed the platform would send similarly radioactive content to keep me — and the scores of other people who reacted to the post — engaged with things that made us mad. I curtailed posts about anything remotely political. Later, I quit posting much at all, sometimes going weeks without a status update. That cooled things down but didn’t clean up my feed. Then something else happened, mostly by accident. I went shopping for a new vehicle, looking for a four-wheel drive truck or SUV on Marketplace. Car ads in my feed soon followed. So did a lot of suggested links about trucks, SUVs and off-road adventure. While the ads were clutter, everything else was pretty cool. I later joined a hiking group. Soon after, Facebook suggested other, similar hiking groups. Within days, I was seeing unsolicited photos of people hiking and climbing mountains in the Rockies. Score! Facebook is also prompting people to its Reels video feature. I’m a sucker for dog videos, drummers and weight training. When I see those videos, I pause, stop and take a couple in for a mindless minute or two. Now my feed is constantly and blessedly interrupted with videos of dogs being amazing, drumming phenoms and guys and gals hoisting barbells. All this makes me happy and brightens my mood.

Want to know what I’m not seeing? Memes, videos and screeds peddling outrage, misinformation and other vile messaging Facebook is rightly getting blasted over. I accidentally told the algorithm that drove people down the QAnon rabbit hole to push out the junk and show me things that made me happy.

So here’s how you clean up your feed:

Don’t feed the beast. Stop clicking, liking, sharing and commenting on things that make you angry. Keep scrolling and starve it instead.

Mute the outrage peddlers. Whether it’s a high-profile personality, a fringe “news” source or just some Facebook friend who can’t stop posting bile, use those mute functions — hide post, snooze and unfollow. That cleans up your page and tells Facebook that there are eyeballs not wanting to see that kind of content.

Start looking for things that bring you joy. Join groups that do cool things. Comment on people’s awesome photographs. Watch a dog or cat video. Smash that “like” button on these types of content.

It’s simple proactivity, and it worked for me. If enough people do it, maybe the corrosive effects of Facebook will subside.

Facebook executives might not care about the damage they’ve done, but we can play their game and win. A pipe dream? Maybe.

But I bet my feed is more awesome than that of the jackwagon who was bashing my friend’s kids.

Featured video: Key revelations the Facebook whistleblower made to Congress

Frances Haugen is a former Facebook employee who worked as a product manager on issues related to civic integrity.


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