Protocol | Policy

Time-ordered feeds won't fix Facebook because we're the problem

Whistleblower Frances Haugen advocated for returning to chronological feeds as a way to escape extreme and divisive content on social media. Yet researchers say it might not be up to the task of pushing back against the kinds of content users seek.

The facebook logo displayed on a smartphone screen, in front of a backdrop of the Facebook logo.

Chronological feeds are among Frances Haugen's proposals.

Photo illustration: Igor Golovniov/Getty Images

Combating misinformation, division and abuse on Facebook and Instagram may be as simple as going back to the site's roots and showing posts in the order they happened. At least, that's what whistleblower Frances Haugen suggested in congressional testimony last week.

The former Facebook product manager made a splash by using the company's own internal research to lend support to the longtime criticism that, in order to hold and monetize user attention, the services' algorithms prioritize shocking and extreme content. Among her suggested fixes was doing away with this method of ordering content, and instead presenting chronologically whatever has popped up most recently in users' networks.

"We don't want computers deciding what we focus on," Haugen said.

Researchers who study how controversial content spreads on social media say such a move could lessen harm without needing to wait for a divided Congress to find consensus on a regulatory approach. Yet the experts also caution that chronological feeds come with their own problems and likely don't go nearly far enough to tackle issues that are endemic to Facebook and other services.

"We shouldn't kid ourselves that it solves everything," said Callum Hood, head of research at the Center for Countering Digital Hate, which studies hate and disinformation online.

Looking back

Tweaking the programming behind how Facebook and Instagram curate the posts that appear in user feeds at first seems to be an elegant solution to a widespread problem. Essentially, the proposal would add a little bit of friction to the interactions that social media has until now constantly worked to speed up — leaving Facebook still profitable, if not quite "ludicrously" so, as Haugen put it.

Unfortunately, a time-ordered feed might not actually tamp down on all of the problems Haugen's testimony zeroed in on, experts caution, especially misinformation or the kinds of content that threaten the mental health of some young Instagram users.

Users looking at chronological feeds could still see plenty of falsehoods about vaccines and elections, as well as the influencer posts that can shred young users' self-esteem. In fact, health and civic misinformation appear to have spread widely even though, as Haugen contended, Facebook made them ineligible to surface at times last year based on high engagement.

"If you went and followed one anti-vaccine page on Facebook, it would recommend more under its Related Pages feature," said Hood, whose organization studied the spread of misinformation about COVID-19 and vaccines. "We see the Instagram app does similar."

Facebook, Hood added, would need to make "pretty wide-ranging changes" to stop feeding users problematic content, particularly when they've already expressed interest in it. Facebook users might also still see misinformation or divisive posts arising organically from friends and relatives, or bouncing across various services like Twitter and TikTok.

"The toxicity is now embedded in the network structure itself," said Kate Starbird, a professor at the University of Washington's Department of Human Centered Design & Engineering.

Time-ordered feeds have their own discontents too: They tend to reward people and brands that do little more than post frequently, even with the spam controls Haugen suggested in place.

"In a purely chronological [feed], to get your stuff to the top, you just put out more and more crap," Starbird said. "It really is going to reward volume."

Facebook launched with a chronological feed but abandoned it in steps, over the years. The company specifically cited a desire to provide more relevant content to users as it stamped out most time-ordered curation in 2014. The changes prompted some user anger at the time, and there are users who try to filter Facebook by "most recent," but for the most part algorithmic curation has become industry standard.

The biggest exception among major platforms is Twitter, which moved toward an engagement-based feed before making chronological feeds an easy option again. On Tuesday, Twitter said it's testing a feature that allows users to swipe more easily between the two modes. A company spokesman wouldn't say which option is more popular, but some of the researchers said they suspect users prefer the engagement-based default.

'Missing piece'

The limits on the benefit you can get from a chronological feed is one reason that social media experts, Haugen and some lawmakers have called for additional transparency as to how certain kinds of content performs on Facebook and also how it affects users.

The company does disclose aggregate figures about takedowns of some harmful content and bot networks. And users can see for themselves how many reactions, shares and comments a particular post gets within their network. What's missing, researchers say, is information about what kinds of misinformation persuade those who read it instead of just prompting outrage, what content or recommendations lead users to extreme groups, which low-quality accounts amplify the most problematic content and how widely most content gets seen (despite Facebook's attempt to share this information about top posts).

For instance, Renee DiResta, technical research manager at the Stanford Internet Observatory, said that when she helped the Senate Intelligence Committee prepare its report into Russia's attempts to sway the 2016 election, she could see how many comments a post got when it attempted to suppress votes by Black people.

She said, "What I had no visibility into was, were those people saying, 'Right on, we're not going to vote'? Or were they saying, 'Screw off, of course we're going to vote'? And that is such a key missing piece of the puzzle."

Even transparency is a fraught topic. There's ongoing debate about what kinds of information outsiders should see, if researchers or the media should get access to more restricted information, and how to protect users' privacy.

Over the summer, for instance, Facebook suspended the accounts of New York University researchers who had been studying disinformation and political ads on Facebook. The move prompted accusations that the company was trying to squash unflattering conclusions, while Facebook said its massive settlement with the U.S. Federal Trade Commission for privacy violations required the decision. The FTC eventually weighed in too, blasting the rationale and siding with the researchers.

Beyond Facebook

Facebook is touting yet another set of changes as it deals with the latest firestorm, although the latest updates offer little to those who want to see more transparency or feeds moving away from engaging-but-iffy content. The company's vice president of global affairs, Nick Clegg, confirmed over the weekend that the company will put in place optional controls for parents, try to "nudge" teens away from harmful content they keep returning to and prompt young users to take breaks.

Clegg also said that his company's algorithms "should be held to account, if necessary by regulation, so that people can match what our systems say they're supposed to do from what actually happens." He reiterated that the company backs certain changes to Section 230, which shields websites from legal liability over user posts.

Clegg's list does echo some of the other calls by Haugen. She suggested the creation of a new regulatory agency to police digital businesses, as well as changes to Sec. 230 that would make social media companies take more legal responsibility for content they boost algorithmically.

The effects of those changes would go far beyond Facebook, although lawmakers and Facebook critics might not mind. Services such as YouTube, TikTok and Reddit also focus primarily on engagement, even though it sometimes results in extreme politics or disinformation. Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal, who led Haugen's hearing, called for some of these companies to appear for future hearings.

Experts said that similar technologies, and incentives, drive content across social media services because the companies ultimately are delivering what users want — and no amount of changing an algorithm can address the human side of the problem.

"Even if we're making it harder to find things, there is still demand," DiResta said.

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