What’s at the end of Facebook’s rainbow?

(c) Philippa Willitts on Flickr
(c) Philippa Willitts on Flickr

In a talk I gave at the Data Power conference in Sheffield a couple of weeks ago, I posed the following thought experiment: what if Mark Zuckerberg woke up feeling like Rupert Murdoch? For decades it’s been accepted – if seldom celebrated – that Murdoch’s red-tops command serious influence over the British electorate. Not for nothing, then, is it said that ‘it was the Sun wot won it‘ for John Major’s Conservatives in 1992; similar arguments could be made for each general election since, not least the most recent one. And research has already shown that small amounts of social information can encourage statistically (and perhaps electorally) significant numbers of Facebook users to turn out to vote.

In the talk, however, I contended that as yet, the media barons of the Internet age – Zuckerberg chief amongst them – had not shown much appetite for wielding the same kind of ideological influence that Murdoch enjoys. This seems like a sensible decision: as a social network, it’s in Facebook’s interest to offer an inclusive rather than divisive or exclusive environment – not least if, as the Guardian suggested during the outcry over Facebook’s emotional manipulation study, happier users might be more amenable to advertising.

Yet last week provided an interesting if imperfect example of what the flow of ideological influence from proprietor to user might look like in the social media age. After the U.S. Supreme Court’s 5-4 ruling in Obergefell vs Hodges – which effectively secured the constitutional right for gay couples across the nation to marry – Facebook users around the world found they had the option, with just a couple of mouse clicks, to add a rainbow-coloured filter to their profile pictures. Crucially, in contrast to the viral spread of ‘equals-sign’ profile pictures in 2013, also in support of gay marriage but which users had to source externally, the ability to add the rainbow filter was ‘baked in’ to the site itself, significantly lowering the effort required.

To be clear, even if this was in fact a subtle attempt to sway opinion on Facebook, it’s seems like an exceptionally benign one. It could well be argued that this move fits Facebook’s vision to be an inclusive, tolerant environment (even if their real-name policy has had serious consequences for transgender people who also fly the LGBT flag) as well as an entirely well-meaning desire to be on the right side of history. And from a personal standpoint, it would be a lot easier to get worked up about this case if I happened to disagree with, rather than fully support, equal marriage rights. But despite a truly remarkable shift in U.S. public opinion on this issue – as studiously documented by Nate Silver – it’s nonetheless the case that between 35% and 40% of Americans still oppose gay marriage. Moreover, attitudes towards homosexuality itself, let alone a right to marry, are variable around the world to say the least – something made clearer through for example the rather cartoonish backlash among some Russian Facebook users, who overlaid their profile pictures with the colours of the Russian flag in response.

Again, none of this is to say that equal marriage isn’t a right whose victory should be celebrated and whose legacy cherished. On the contrary, campaigners are now celebrating with such joy because they had to fight so hard, in the face of what was until recently trenchant public opposition. (By Silver’s calculations, public opinion only ‘crossed over’ from a plurality against to a plurality in favour around the start of this decade, at about the same time President Obama declared his views had ‘evolved’ sufficiently to support it publicly.) All this is by way of saying: while equal marriage is now both a de facto and de jure constitutional right, it’s also still a live, ideological issue among the public at large; if evidence were needed, tune in to what many of the Republican candidates for President are saying about the decision on the campaign trail in Iowa.

When seen from this perspective, Facebook’s implementation of the auto-rainbow feature seems, albeit still essentially benign, perhaps a little more controversial. It leaves the door slightly ajar for similar initiatives in the future, perhaps ones around the kinds of issues that you or I might agree with slightly less. It’s worth bearing in mind here that tech giants routinely donate large sums to both Democratic and Republican candidates each election cycle – indeed Facebook’s Political Action Committee – the means by which American corporations can donate to candidates (thanks, Supreme Court!) gave more to Republicans than Democrats in 2012. Zuckerberg himself hosted a fundraiser in 2013 for Chris Christie, a year after the New Jersey Governor vetoed a same-sex marriage bill, and his own departures from the liberal orthodoxy that is often (somewhat erroneously) ascribed to Silicon Valley include on issues such as the Keystone XL pipeline.

This shouldn’t become a political witch-hunt: for all we know, Zuckerberg’s views are held sincerely. But in an age where tech issues from net neutrality to government surveillance are up for debate, and debate is increasingly – and depressingly – informed chiefly by those with the largest pockets, we shouldn’t be surprised if the influence that West Coast coders cast over East Coast lawmakers only increases. A recent Washington Post article described how “tech companies such as Google, Netflix and Facebook have amassed tremendous political power in recent years, with lobbying budgets to match.”

Clearly owners and operators bear no obligation to reflect the political views of some or most of the users of their services. The uncomfortable truth though is that, like it or not, they have the potential for casting potentially enormous sway over the views of their users. A subtle change to an interface or the introduction of a new feature could have as much or more effect on public opinion as any hyperbolic headline in your tabloid of choice – not to mention the potential of entirely invisible tweaks to the ever-more-sophisticated algorithms which serve up content. And when such a change takes place on a platform like Facebook, its impacts are significantly magnified by network effects – to a greater degree than, say, the ideologically fragmented newspaper market.

Social networking sites have been undeniably fantastic at allowing ordinary people to express themselves in sometimes extraordinary ways. The decade or so that we’ve lived with, and on, social media, has probably facilitated more recorded expressions of human creativity and sociality as in the rest of human history put together. The danger only emerges when the same platforms shift, however subtly, from giving users the opportunity to express themselves in general, to encouraging users to express themselves in particular, ideologically substantive ways. From President Obama’s eulogy in Charleston to the Supreme Court’s decision on equal marriage, last week gave plenty of credence to Martin Luther King’s notion that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” It’s more difficult to know exactly what sits at the end of the colourful arc that Facebook offered its users last week. But it’s safe – if cynical – to assume that there’s a pot of gold involved somewhere.

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