According to a recent poll, sixty percent of respondents believe that it would be dangerous for Facebook to make friend recommendations based on common interests and user preferences.
What are the costs and benefits of this type of activity and how does Facebook already use such technology?
How does Facebook collect and use ‘Activity Data’?
Whenever you interact with a post on Facebook — liking, sharing or commenting on a post — Facebook records this information and uses it to recommend similar posts, both from within your network of friends and from outside of your network (advertisers and the like).
According to a second poll (below), ninety percent of all respondents were not aware of this practice.
The dark-side of User Preference on Social Media
Normally, this only goes to improving your personal customer experience, but it can have a dark side. This is the primary mechanism by which Russian Trolls are thought to have meddled with the 2016 US Presidential Election. Allow me to explain.
Propoganda writers need only determine what riles people up — either exciting and enciting to action or infuriating (and inciting to equal and opposite action). They are very good at this and they read the news.
While some people suspect that the Russians are responsible for the election of President Trump, it is important to realize that foreign agents need not control who is in power, they only need to divide us and keep us at one another’s throats. This is enough to effectively paralyze the United States, prevent us from doing any real, positive work and effectively neutralize us as a nation (this is far more effective, strategically, than terrorist activity at defeating an enemy).
So, what should Facebook do about this?
One thing that Facebook could do is pay attention to how quickly individual posts propogate through their network. The dangerous political posts will almost invariably propogate more quickly than non-weaponized posts. Also, they will propogate more quickly in one political party than another. Facebook already has more than enough information to guess your political affilliation based on how you interact with other political posts. They could use this information to identify dangerous material and dampen its spread.
Whose responsibility? Facebook or End-Users?
While Facebook certainly has some accountability, what of the accountability of the individual end-users? After all, it is our predictable responses that enables the propagandists to weaponize ideas. Further, do we really want Facebook to look more deeply into our data and exercise more control? We like to place blame, but would we really want Facebook to exercise its muscles in these matters in the first place?
These are all good questions.
Should Facebook use activity data to make smart friend recommendations?
Well, the good side of this question is that it would allow you to meet lots of new people with common interests and beliefs. I beleive that this would be outstanding. On the flip side, it would allow fringe groups to more easily recruit people into hate groups and terrorist organizations. Of course, Facebook probably has the ability to identify members of such groups and could potentially relay such information to authorities, but that is another question to be explored.
Other important polls
Another important poll asks several important questions about what Facebook and other internet sites can and should be allowed to do. Your voice matters, so please vote if you can!
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