Duke expert questions signals that guide Facebook’s algorithm after documents released

National News

DURHAM, N.C. (WNCN) – Critics recently have blamed Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook for their role in divisive events like the Jan. 6 Capitol riots and the aftermath of George Floyd’s death.

“As much as we love to put our tech entrepreneurs on these pedestals, he’s not qualified or trained in this area whatsoever. We have a CEO of a company with a product that does things that he has zero expertise in,” said Philip Napoli, James R. Shepley Professor of Public Policy, Director of the DeWitt Wallace Center for Media & Democracy, and Senior Associate Dean for Faculty and Research for the Sanford School at Duke University.

Napoli is referring to what he and other critics believe is Facebook and Zuckerberg’s role in a litany of troublesome events and crises. It includes racist reactions in the aftermath of the death of George Floyd, the attack on the U.S. Capitol, and violence around the world, like the current ethnic attacks in Ethiopia.

“What happens in an incredibly short amount of time is how toxic these news feeds become. So, it really raises questions about the nature of the signals that are guiding these recommendation algorithms,” Napoli said.

A trove of leaked comments, known as the Facebook Papers, includes the example of a fake account set up to look like a conservative North Carolina mother. Within days, Facebook’s algorithms led the account to QAnon and went on unchecked for more than a year — all the while feeding conspiracies and false information.

“This idea that we prioritize profit over safety and well-being, that’s just not true,” Zuckerberg said.

It’s not only Facebook Napoli worries about. Misinformation and radicalization have real-world consequences. Napoli believes that will continue without great change.

“What is the next platform? There is always the next platform in creating opportunity for these problems to repeat themselves. So, we need to have something in place, some sort of protective measures in place. MySpace became a cesspool, people migrated to Facebook and then people migrated to Instagram and we can’t just keep kicking the can down the road,” he said.

Congressional lawmakers have said social media apps like TikTok, Snapchat, and YouTube have often been used to create more harm than good in the lives of children. Lawmakers are considering federal regulations because they don’t believe there is enough action being done by social media companies.

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