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The Science of Fighting Social Media

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I’ve been a technologist for many years. Some would identify me as a tech geek even before they’d think of me as a fighter, artist or entrepreneur. While it’s true I’ve had a passion for technology, it’s always been paired with sensible reason and definitive purpose. Moreover, technology has always been a tool, where the science is what drives its creation, inspires its evolution, and determines its necessity.

For many years, I avoided social media like the plague. Seeing many networks rise and fall, I was extremely trepidatious about my personal investment in the mediums. However, as a scientist, I also saw what stripped my privacy and in some senses my individuality, as an incredible tool for connecting with like-minded individuals. When the internet became mainstream; it still lacked identity. However, what Mark Zuckerberg was able to do with Facebook was to provide an almost singular identity to the collected thoughts, experiences and shared stories of over 1.3 billion individuals.

For all of the obvious fears that accompanied the thought of any tool able to accomplish social engineering on that order of magnitude, there were also fascinating concepts about the evolution of human consciousness. In 2012, I concluded that the inevitable truth lay before society. What was once just a collection of thoughts scattered throughout many different traditional and progressive mediums had now come to take shape in the form of what I called the “electro-organic consciousness.”

The electro-organic consciousness represented the sum total and average of all the thoughts, feelings, experiences, stories and other such identifying characteristics of the once “individual” into a now super consciousness that spanned millions and even potentially billions of people. It was all tied together by a single thread. That thread being the medium upon which they interact.

Without beating around the bush any further, lets call a cat a cat and admit that in just 8 short years Facebook has established itself as the most dominant electro-organic consciousness on the planet.

While many may argue that there are many millions and even billions more that are “online” yet do not actively use Facebook, none of those groups directly interact with each other through a medium that is so large, closely moderated and filtered as that of Facebook’s social network.

Now for the 6 million dollar question. If the content on Facebook is indeed selectively moderated and filtered, then by what legal and moral pretenses does a network that has a population larger than (with exception to China) the sum total of 5 of the worlds most influential superpowers operate on? Who regulates them? Where are the checks and balances? How is fairness, free speech and transparency ensured?

Many would argue that the lack of precedent and the obvious (or perhaps not so obvious) terms of service make no guarantees. Further more, participation in the network is entirely optional. Thus, no possibility of coercion exists as no consequences are imposed on those who choose to opt out of Facebook’s massive social machine.

Yet, is it so? Are there no consequences for opting out of the system? The Pew Research Foundation’s study from October of 2013 showed evidence that 47% of adult Facebook users get their news through Facebook. Even if the acquisition of it is incidental, it’s a significant source of information for many individuals.

In journalism, being the first out of the gate with a story often makes or breaks the success of a publication. If we are to assume that Pew’s research is sound, then we must also concede that it would be tantamount to professional suicide for any respectable publication to entirely avoid using Facebook as a means to distribute their content.

Great, let’s all get on Facebook! Wait a moment. . .  What about the filters? Or ahem, shall we call them “content moderators?” Oh yes, in media, we are all quite familiar with the necessity to balance truth with what is morally, ethically and legally reasonable. However, when did we all agree that we would replace our governments with the policies and procedures of a for-profit business?

It seems almost impossible or implausible that in 8 short years we would get to this point, however, here we are. The Orwellian dreams of 1984 are coming to pass, but instead of there being an insidious government plot to control the masses, it’s quite likely something as simple as the capitalist desire for more revenue that is driving Facebook forward.

Of course this all seems unlikely, doesn’t it? After all, Facebook is a social network, not a news organization. Yet. . .  With something so large, it’s often difficult to be entirely clandestine when attempting to enter a new market, but as the best strategists would point out that which is in plain sight is most often hidden by cognitive dissonance. Of course there are those who remain unaffected. Recently retired but ever excellent publication “All Things Digital” (now under a subsection titled “Digits” in the Wall Street Journal) released two articles which might raise more than one eyebrow in the new publishing business.

First, there was a story discussing the potential path that Facebook is walking down, to essentially become the equivalent of (among many other things) a news paper to it’s audience.  According to the article by Mike Issaac of AllthingsD, “Facebook has another problem with its vision of News Feed: The type of stuff that people actually have an appetite for.”  He later adds, “What Facebook wants to surface in the News Feed more often is “high-quality” content.”

Yet Issaac highlights the core issue at hand for Facebook’s grand vision with this line, “…what users are clicking on and sharing seems to be quite the opposite of [Lars] Backstrom’s example: Viral stories and photos produced by publishers like BuzzFeed and Upworthy, are appearing on hosting sites like Imgur or 9Gag, perform exceedingly well on Facebook, garnering tons of clicks and engagement.”

So how is Facebook approaching this challenge? Lars Backstrom (Facebook’s News Feed manager) was fairly blunt in an interview by AllthingsD earlier in December. The Q&A session touched on a couple of key points that shed a good deal of light on Facebook’s tactics for giving the people what “they think” they want.

Quoting from the article:

Peter Kafka: Are you paying attention to the source of the content? Or is it solely the type of content?

Lars Backstrom: Right now, it’s mostly oriented around the source.

Peter Kafka: So something that comes from publisher X, you might consider high quality, and if it comes from publisher Y, it’s low quality?

Lars Backstrom: Yes.

To say such blatant favoritism is shocking is an understatement. Often times, things like this are suspected but never so blatantly advertised. How can these decisions be fair and objective? How are we assured they are ethical? Beyond that, what incentive is there for any media company to advertise with Facebook if at the drop of a hat they can “decide” your content is no longer ‘high quality.’

Again, another dilemma that is no stranger to professionals in the news industry is that of balancing ethics with good business practices. However, none of us have ever had such unilateral control over so many concurrently as that of Facebook. And this is where we see many others are beginning to feel the pain.

First, we noticed a significant dip in the amount of traffic being driven to our articles from our community of 268 thousand loyal Facebook fans. Then we began to see the patterns of filtration. Posts to our Facebook fan page that used to hit tens of thousands of news feeds within 15 to 30 minutes began to grind to a halt at well below their original figures. I was astonished at first. I couldn’t believe my eyes. Our community was extremely active with well over 30 thousand conversations taking place on Facebook for any given 7 day period. Then with the flick of the proverbial switch, sometime between December 23rd and December 28th 2013, we saw a sharp decline.

The change was so abrupt that many of our loyal fans, those who routinely depended on our articles to stay current with MMA news, complained that we were not publishing with the same frequency as before. Yet, after many private conversations with each of these rightfully disgruntled fans, it became apparent that something was seriously amiss with Facebook’s algorithm for post distribution.

At first, we thought it might be a matter of money. Yet that solved nothing. We attempted boosting posts, targeting promoted posts to only our fans. Yet nothing could recover the engagement we lost from the filter being imposed on all the content of our page.

We reached out to Facebook for an explanation. Only one reply ever came back from them via email. It was hardly at all elucidating, and beyond that the entirely formulaic, impersonal and unapologetic tone of the message, it wreaked of apathy. You would think that perhaps just a little more care would go into investigating an issue with a Fan Page that not only generates great content for Facebook’s social network, but also drives engagement further, thus making more revenue for the burgeoning social network.

In the past 4 weeks of observation, many theories have been tossed around. None of them have been able to lead to a reasonable conclusion or remedy without Facebook’s cooperation.

Yet one thing became apparent and remains painfully true to this day. We are NOT alone in this. Other content sources have been affected as well. Just today, an article published by Business Insider highlights the pains suffered by, coincidentally, another “science” based news and information source relative to the recent changes to Facebook’s news feeds.

Is Facebook waging an assault on “Science”? We find that unlikely, but until Facebook responds with more cohesive explanations and remedies for the affected parties, these matters are likely to escalate. We certainly are concerned for the future of freedom of the press when so many eyes and ears are captive to private industries “better judgement” for information broadcasting.

There is no doubt that the efforts of Mark Zuckerberg and his innovative team have brought forth a cultural and technological change that has broadened our perspectives on society and community. It’s an incredible tool that has enormous social benefits. Though, like atomic energy, that power can be used for the betterment of society just as easily as it can be a destructive force. If there are to be filters imposed on content, then there should be total transparency on what is and is not welcome or permissible. However, it’s just so much simpler to allow the community to decide what they wish to see for themselves. Twitter’s model, for example, is very simple yet also very reasonable. If you follow someone on twitter, you get to see all of their tweets.

The same is not true for Facebook. When a potential fan decides to “Like” a Fan Page, they are not guaranteed any updates from that page will appear in their news feed. Instead they are subject to Facebook’s better judgement for what they will and will not be exposed to. For all intensive purposes, if someone clicks the like button on a Facebook page, then they should be assured to receive regular updates from that page.  Isn’t that the expectation we’ve all had to begin with?

While there is a workaround to this dilemma the solution is not obvious. Essentially, when you “like” a page, you have the option to “Get Notifications”.  This is only possible by first clicking the “Like” button and then hovering the mouse over the “Liked” box. A pop-up menu will appear and you can select “Get Notifications” from there. Once this is done, you will be assured to get each and every update from any Fan Page you like. Why this behavior is not selected by default is a bit puzzling. However, it’s impossible to ignore the possible conclusion that the function is obscured merely to drive Page administrators to use post boosts and advertising to increase engagement. While this makes financial sense to Facebook for the short term, in the long run it’s not a sustainable model for many publishers. If these trends continue, the very likely result may be an exodus of high value publishers from Facebook.

We continue to hold out hope that Facebook will realize the impact these changes have had on quality partners and remedy the situation in short order!

Let us know your thoughts in the comments and please do continue to visit us here at www.scifighting.com or on any of our other Social mediums (Twitter, Tumblr, Google Plus, StumbleUpon, Vine, Instagram and Pheed).

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Luca Rajabi
Luca has been passionate about martial arts and eastern philosophies since childhood. As an athlete, inventor and entrepreneur Luca founded SciFighting on the principal lessons learned from his life experience "fighting" to preserve his health and fitness. Although born with inherently poor and inconsistent health he pushed forward to learn as much as he could about the sciences of technology, medicine and mental health. Years of study, working with physicians and combined analysis finally began to bare fruit by his early twenties. Starting with Fencing, cross training and body building then moving to Boxing, Western Kickboxing, Muay Thai, Brazilian Jiujitsu, Eskrima and an eclectic assortment of self defense techniques. Luca's core philosophy is that to win a battle every fighter must balance their mental and physical health. Luca has said that "With well developed technique, conditioning and mental focus a sound strategy will most often win over brute strength alone." It is in this spirit that he passionately advocates for the "Science of Fighting".