The problem with the Facebook algorithm is that it optimizes for user engagement, without bothering to consider whether that engagement is positive or negative. Content that we find deceptive and/or outrageous causes us (or me at least) to immediately begin typing furious responses, which causes the algorithm to serve up more of that sweet, sweet enraging content.
It’s a massive externality, where Facebook has imposed an emotional cost on its users because it does not have to directly pay that cost, and its able to quite effectively monetize our rage, no matter how much misery that causes, or how many years it takes off our lives.
One option is to ignore the offensive content, but doing so calls to mind the words of Martin Luther King Jr., who said, “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” Inaction is maddening, and does nothing to place social pressure on the offenders.
The solution is simple: Facebook needs to add a “dislike” feature, which will serve the dual purposes of conveying your feelings to the person who posted the content, and telling the algorithm to show you less of that kind of content.
Will some people feel hurt by the dislikes they see on their posts? Perhaps, but is that any worse than the angry replies that they currently receive instead? Also, it is a self-correcting problem–they will eventually drive away the people they offend. And while this will add to the “echo chamber” effect of social media, it’s not as though the current situation is working well.
Of course, people have asked for a dislike button for many years–just Google “Facebook dislike button” for a sample of the many articles on this topic. Facebook’s stated reason for refusing this simple request is that “dislike” is too blunt an instrument, and that people might “dislike” a post about a friend losing a loved one.
To put it bluntly, that rationale is bullshit. People “like” tragic posts all the time, and most don’t bother to add a crying emoji reaction. I’ve never heard of anyone saying, “I can’t believe my unsympathetic friends “liked” this post.
The real answer is almost certainly that outrage and anger is good for business, just as it has for the news media. Well Facebook, here’s your chance to be better than the traditional media you consider your inferior. Give up your rage revenue, and stop pissing off your users just to make a few extra bucks.