The Rise of the Facebook Truthers

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Feb. 11 2014 6:51 PM

The Rise of the Facebook Truthers

Journalists will believe anything about the social network, as long as it’s totally outlandish.

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Is it theoretically possible that Facebook could rig its news feed in this way? I suppose so. The company considers its algorithms a secret sauce, so we can’t know for sure what’s in them. But rigging the news feed would not only be unethical—it would also be terrible for Facebook’s own business. Ads on Facebook are displayed in a few discreet slots within the news feed, and the ads you see are determined by different algorithms than the organic posts in your feed. Buying ads on Facebook, then, ought to get you one thing: ads. The news feed, meanwhile, is the core product by which Facebook attracts, retains, and engages its users, and the company has huge teams of engineers and machine-learning experts working constantly to fine-tune its algorithms to show people the posts they most want to see. If they had to go in and muck with their code every time the ad team struck a deal with the likes of BuzzFeed, they’d rebel. Meanwhile, the news feed would suffer, and users would flee.

Facebook itself called the Business Insider allegation simply “not true.” Spokeswoman Jessie Baker told me, “Organic News Feed ranking is not impacted at all by ads. We try to show people the things they will find the most interesting based on what and who they interact with, not who spends money on Facebook.”

Further evidence of our collective willingness to believe just about anything about Facebook so long as it looks salacious: Carlson’s accusation came the same week that another critic scored a viral hit alleging essentially the opposite. In a nine-minute video that went wild on Reddit and Hacker News, and was republished by Mashable, Derek Muller of Veritasium makes the case that Facebook is in effect punishing its own advertisers by flooding their pages with bogus likes.

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Some of Muller’s complaints ring true: Facebook does have a problem with bots—i.e., fake accounts—and “click farms” in which people are paid to like various pages and posts in order to boost their apparent popularity on the network. Muller is right that these likes threaten to actually dilute a page’s reach, because the bogus likers don’t engage with any subsequent posts, which signals to Facebook’s algorithms that the posts aren’t that interesting. Muller’s concern is that people who use Facebook’s own advertising tools to gain more likes are ending up with bogus likes as well, perhaps as a byproduct of click-farm activity. The mechanism proposed here is fascinating and makes the full video worth watching if you have even a passive interest in click fraud or online marketing.

Again, Muller’s hypothesis seems plausible, and so it seems reasonable to see it as a genuine problem for Facebook in delivering on its promises to advertisers.

But that’s just the thing: If Muller is right that bogus likes are diluting advertisers’ reach on Facebook, this would be an obvious problem … for Facebook. Where Muller jumps the tracks is in suggesting that Facebook has no incentive to crack down on fake likes, because it gets paid either way. He goes so far as to title his video “Facebook Fraud,” implying that Facebook tolerates click fraud for its own benefit. We’re talking about a $160 billion public company whose success quite plainly depends on its ability to convince advertisers that it can deliver real value in exchange for their dollars. Do we really think it’s intentionally swindling its own clients for short-term gain?

Again, it’s theoretically possible but would be monumentally counterproductive. Still, I dutifully put the question to Facebook: Are you perhaps being a little lax in cracking down on bogus likes in order to make it easier to fulfill your own promises to advertisers? Here’s spokesman Jay Nancarrow’s response:

Fake likes don’t help us. For the last two years, we have focused on proving that our ads drive business results and we have even updated our ads to focus more on driving business objectives. Those kinds of real-world results would not be possible with fake likes. In addition, we are continually improving the systems we have to monitor and remove fake likes from the system. … We've made a lot of progress by building a combination of automated and manual systems to block accounts used for fraudulent purposes and like button clicks. We also take action against sellers of fake clicks and help shut them down.

People are so suspicious of Facebook these days, though, that accusatory posts like Carlson’s tend to be far more widely shared on the site than well-reasoned debunkings. For instance, my story picking apart a ridiculous Princeton study that found Facebook is headed the way of MySpace did not reach anywhere near as many readers as a brief Time post that reported on it uncritically. Were I to view the journalists who publish such posts through the same lens that they apparently view Facebook, I would conclude this post by suggesting that they’re willfully duping their own readers in order to boost their own traffic. While that’s theoretically possible, I find it highly unlikely. After all, they’d only be hurting their own business in the long run.

Will Oremus is Slate's senior technology writer.

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