Why the New Big Tech Anti-Algorithm Bill Is Doomed Even If It Succeeds

Why the New Big Tech Anti-Algorithm Bill Is Doomed Even If It Succeeds
Screenshot: Gizmodo/Frances Haugen

On Tuesday morning, we got the latest update from key lawmakers’ ongoing tirade against Big Tech: a new bill that would force social media giants to offer versions of their platforms that are free from the obscure, black-boxy algorithms that curate content in a customised way.

At first blush, this bill does sound pretty… good? It takes a sledgehammer to one of the original sins of social media that we’re all painfully aware of by now: your Facebook, Twitter, or YouTube feed is going to look fundamentally different from mine, or the person that’s sitting next to you, because they’re curated based on our specific browsing, tweeting, and/or watching habits. Echo chambers are the inevitable consequence of this, and sometimes those echo chambers turn unspeakably violent. This bill would mandate that people be given the choice to step outside these chambers if they choose — and choice is always a good thing.

But because this is a sledgehammer of a bill, there would almost certainly be some unintended consequences to just about every major platform. The lawmakers appear to be primarily trying to reign in Facebook (ahem, Meta), in particular (which is currently enemy number one as far as some of the bill’s co-sponsors are concerned). But there’s another major issue to contend with: The company already offers us a curation-free version of its platform, and it even ran tests internally to see how people would respond to a chronological feed.

In both cases, the results are clear: an algorithmically curated Facebook might be bad for society, but a chronological Facebook is just bad in a slew of other ways.

Axios was first to report on the so-called Filter Bubble Transparency Act, co-sponsored by Reps. Ken Buck (R-Colo.) and Antitrust Subcommittee chairman David Cicilline (D-R.I.), along with Reps. Lori Trahan (D-Mass.), and Burgess Owens (R-Utah). Like most bills in the tech space, this one’s wording (which you can read for yourself here), is pretty vague. Major social media platforms — like Facebook, for example — would be required to offer users access to a version of their newsfeeds that are “unmanipulated,” or not arranged using data specific to a particular user.

The ways that these platforms would be able to curate content, according to the bill, include users’ age, for restricting access to adult content, as well as user data that is “provided by a user for the express purpose of determining the order or manner that information is furnished to a user,” such as saved preferences, geographic location, filters, or search queries.

All of this makes sense if you’re thinking of the aforementioned Facebooks, Twitters, and YouTubes of the world, which are specifically targeted by the legislation. (The law would only apply to companies with more than 500 employees, average annual revenue of $US50 ($68) million or more for the past three years, and 1 million or more users.) These platforms would be legally mandated to offer you a way to opt out of the curated experience you’re getting every time you log on. For those three platforms, the alternative might be the chronological feed that some of the most vocal tech critics, like Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen, have advocated for.

But the bill’s definition of a liable “platform” also includes those that are entirely built around customised curation. Under the Filter Bubble Transparency Act, TikTok would need to offer a version of your “For You Page” that isn’t, well, for you. Spotify would need to offer a version where it’s not allowed to recommend artists you might be into or concerts in your area. Netflix would turn from a service tailor-made for binging into something that’s more like browsing at Blockbuster (RIP).

Even if you’re not a fan of those platforms, this bill applies to any “public-facing website, internet application, or mobile application” that uses curation algorithms. This extends way, way beyond typical tech platforms in ways Buck and co. likely didn’t anticipate. Every major airline uses these sorts of algorithms to determine the price of your airline ticket, for example. In the current covid-19 hellscape, hotels are starting to tap these sorts of systems to get customers to book more stays, and grocery stores are turning to content curation to get customers through the door.

At their worst, personalisation algorithms fuel political polarization and extremist beliefs that undermine society. At their best, though, these systems do exactly what they’re designed to do: cut down on the paralyzing information overload someone might feel when deciding what to buy for dinner that night, or what movie they want to watch after. An uncurated app isn’t only one that’s less divisive, but it’s also one that’s more overwhelming to use, and less… well, useful overall.

Facebook’s own internal research bears this out. In a 2018 document simply titled “What happens if we delete ranked news feed?,” which you can read for yourself here, an unnamed researcher described how the company turned an unspecified number of user’s Facebook feeds “roughly chronological” for two weeks. (This document was released by Haugen’s team to Congress and a group of publications including Gizmodo, the New York Times, the Atlantic, and many more.)

The good news: People that were part of this experiment used News Feed less, but they also used Facebook less overall. The bad news: It turned Facebook into an even more miserable experience that was less about keeping up with your closest friends and more into a hub for Groups and Pages.

In other words, the chronological feed turned Facebook into something akin to Reddit, which isn’t really a compliment.

As the researcher pointed out, being faced with a more “boring” feed didn’t temper people’s time on the platform all that much — just where on the platform they were spending it. Time spent in Facebook Messenger, and in Groups spiked up considerably, as did time spent using Facebook’s search engine. People’s feeds featured more group content (50% more, according to the report), and less content from their friends (20% less).

“Unconnected public content edge stories,” which refers to posts telling you that one of your friends commented on someone else’s page or profile, “more than double[d],” according to the document. The researcher chalked it up to the way these posts are “massively” downranked by Facebook’s usual recommendation algorithms, since these sorts of posts are seen as a “constant quality complaint” from most users. (I can confirm, these posts are super annoying).

This might also be why the researcher also found dislike rates shooting up among Facebook users in this experiment. “As friend content, especially friend statuses fall, group, followee and unconnected edge stories gain,” they wrote. “Dislike rates skyrocket on these subject types, suggesting people are not happy with the content they see.”

“I wonder how the folks outside of Facebook would feel about the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ things that happen as the result of this switch,” one employee wrote in reference to the doc.

Another internal commenter pointed out that one measure of “user satisfaction” could be how often people are choosing to hide the content they see. “That’s up around +50%,” they added, noting that while there are “many dimensions” of what user satisfaction actually means, this suggests that at the very least, people just… weren’t happy with their News Feeds.

Weirdly enough, in spite of all this, “viewport views” (the internal lingo the company’s researchers use when talking about the number of posts, pictures, or pieces of content a person sees on their screens), were up, even when time on the platform was down. Another unnamed employee offered a hypothesis about why this might be.

“I think people keep scrolling to see their usual stuff or interesting posts,” they wrote. Over time though, that number flattened out, which suggests that “gradually people are giving up,” and just logging off instead of scrolling.

But you don’t need to take these researchers’ word for it. Right now, you can log into your Facebook account on desktop, hit “See More” in the column to the lefthand column and click on “Most Recent” (you can also just use this link, if you prefer). On mobile, this setting is available at the top of the app. The only caveat is that in both cases, the News Feed will flip back to the regular, curated version once you close the page you’re on or app you’re using.

Personally, I’m… fine with that? When I tried out this chronological News Feed for myself, I got something just as boring and annoying as these researchers promised. Half-baked memes and random posts from years-old pages that I’d forgotten I’d followed dominated the feed. Marketplace posts were a frequent offender too, which wouldn’t be as annoying if they were products I’d buy, but they were mostly for cars. And I can’t drive.

Posts from friends — even distant ones! — were sandwiched between dozens of posts from Pages I don’t remember joining, promos for products I don’t want to buy, and, of course, the usual Facebook amount of ads. It turned the social network into something that wasn’t… social, when that’s the only reason I ever made an account with it, to begin with.

Did it make the platform less of an addictive time-suck? Absolutely. But did I feel “better” about using it? No. Most users probably won’t. And I don’t think lawmakers will either.

Read the full internal Facebook document here.