— Antonio French (@AntonioFrench) August 19, 2014
Are some social media outlets omitting the biggest news of the past week from your timeline? Depending whether you are on Facebook or Twitter your news feed about the uproar in Ferguson, Mo., over the fatal police shooting of unarmed Black teenager Michael Brown could be entirely different.
The difference is an algorithm, which dictates a lot of what happens on social media. An algorithm is a mathematical formula that decides what you see and when you see it. Twitter’s feed isn’t dictated by an algorithm. Tweets are seen in real time. Facebook, however, uses a complex algorithm to decide what winds up in your news feed. Although Facebook won’t reveal its algorithm, it is partly based on your history of likes, clicks or shares.
Ars Technica’s Casey Johnson tells The Washington Post that Facebook’s algorithm tends to omit controversial content, which racially charged protests could be seen as. “There is a reason that the content users see tends to be agreeable to a general audience: sites like [BuzzFeed, Elite Daily, Upworthy, and their ilk] are constantly honing their ability to surface stuff with universal appeal. Content that causes dissension and tension can provide short-term rewards to Facebook in the form of heated debates, but content that creates accord and harmony is what keeps people coming back,” says Johnson.
Johnson’s theory carries some weight. A Georgia Institute of Technology study of how political content affects users’ perceptions of Facebook, found that “because Facebook friend networks are often composed of ‘weak ties’ where the threshold for friending someone is low, users were often negatively surprised to see their acquaintances express political opinions different from their own. This felt alienating and, overall, made everyone less likely to speak up on political matters (and therefore, create content for Facebook),” summarized Johnson.
Take the situation in Ferguson for example. According to University of North Carolina sociologist Zeynep Tufekci, last Wednesday, when there were riots in Ferguson and arrests of journalists, she heard of the events in real time on her Twitter feed. Posts about Ferguson didn’t appear in her Facebook feed until the next morning.
“Would Ferguson be buried in algorithmic censorship?” she wrote on Medium. Adding, “How the Internet is run, governed and filtered is a human rights issue.”