How Facebook Manipulates Us Part 4: Our Content Consumption
To Facebook, all engagement is engagement, no matter the sentiment.
This is part four of what I believe will end up being a five part series on how the largest social media platform in the world manipulates its users. Here are the other parts if you haven’t read them yet:
Part 2: Our Personal Expression
Part 3: Our Off-Facebook Internet Activity
Today, in part four, we come back to Facebook and briefly explore how Facebook uses our content consumption habits to manipulate us.
Facebook exists to make money, as we have previously explored. To reiterate, there is nothing wrong with that. However, when the largest social media platform in the world is driven by profit margins and stock gains, those priorities are going to have a dramatic effect on the decisions the platform makes. Understandable, right? So if Facebook exists to make money, it follows that it would make decisions that lead to more revenue. Makes sense. Where does the problem come in? The problem appears when the decisions Facebook makes to generate more revenue have long-lasting, negative effects on its users.
A company like Target rearranging their store in order to adjust to customer spending priorities in an effort to generate more revenue is smart and has very little negative effect on the customer (outside of having to learn a new layout!). A grocer like Kroger raising the price on ice cream in the summer because it is in higher demand would be smart for their business, and it would have a small negative effect on their customer, but it wouldn’t last forever.
Facebook makes decisions to monetize the data of their users that are far more manipulative than rearranging store aisles and much more predatory than charging a dollar more for ice cream. We will explore a couple of examples of such activity in the final installment in this series on Monday.
Today, we explore the third major way Facebook extracts data from its users for the sake of manipulating them. First, we explored how they extract the data we input into Facebook. Second, we explored how Facebook follows us around the internet, tracking our activity for their knowledge. Third, today, we explore how Facebook harvests data from our content consumption on their platform.
You Are What You Consume
The third common way Facebook harvests data from us, its users, is by learning who we are by what kind of content we consume. In the marketing world, “engagement” is the most important metric to measure social media effectiveness. A number of actions are considered engagement: liking, commenting, sharing, watching a video, pausing while scrolling to view a picture, and more. All of those actions are kinds of engagement that Facebook (and other platforms) use to track what keeps our attention.
If you watch a few funny videos on Facebook, Facebook sees your watch time and is more likely to deliver you funny videos in the future. If you comment on a bunch of political articles, Facebook sees that political articles drive you to action, and it will likely deliver you a lot more political articles in the future.
One of the funnier parts about overseeing social media for a large organization as I do is when people comment on Facebook posts about how mad they are that they are seeing our content. First of all, if you’re seeing content from a Facebook page you don’t like, it’s more than likely that you have followed the page on Facebook. Second, when you engage with a piece of content you don’t like, like commenting, “WHY AM I SEEING THIS IN MY FEED?!” you are now much more likely to see more content from that page or similar content from other pages. It makes me and the social media managers I work with chuckle when we see it. “Well, Steve, we’re sorry you don’t like our posts, but you just earned yourself a greater helping of them, and there’s not really anything we can do about it!” For better or worse, when we engage with content on Facebook, we are telling the Facebook algorithm to serve us more content like it. Why? Because we have to remember: to Facebook all engagement is engagement, regardless of sentiment. They don’t care if a post made you feel happy, sad, or mad, as long as it caused you to engage.
Facebook is constantly learning what keeps our attention and drives us to action so that it can keep feeding us more of that, especially from advertisers. Facebook knows what kind of content you like better than you know yourself. Unfortunately, Facebook has routinely made decisions and mistakes that just happen to serve its primary customers, advertisers, and not its users.
On Monday, we’ll look at a couple of examples.