The Facebook Algorithm Is Watching You

JaysonPhotography/Shutterstock.com

Here’s one way to confuse it.

You can tell a lot about a person from how they react to something.

That’s why Facebook’s various “Like” buttons are so powerful. Clicking a reaction icon isn’t just a way to register an emotional response, it’s also a way for Facebook to refine its sense of who you are. So when you “Love” a photo of a friend’s baby, and click “Angry” on an article about the New England Patriots winning the Super Bowl, you’re training Facebook to see you a certain way: You are a person who seems to love babies and hate Tom Brady.

The more you click, the more sophisticated Facebook’s idea of who you are becomes. (Remember: Although the reaction choices seem limited now—Like, Love, Haha, Wow, Sad, or Angry—up until around this time last year, there was only a “Like” button.)

This matters because of what Facebook might then do with its sense of your baby-loving, Tom-Brady-hating self. It might mean that Facebook will show you more photos of babies and fewer articles about football, which in turn might affect which friends appear more frequently and prominently in your News Feed. And that might affect your perception of the world.

It might mean you see sponsored posts aimed at parents of young kids. Or it might mean that Facebook shows you an outsized number of Tom Brady posts one week as a way to provoke you—Facebook does have a history of experimenting on its users, after all.

“Facebook has conducted covert experiments on its users to evaluate how Facebook can emotionally influence people,” says Ben Grosser, an artist and a professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “They already have so much power. To give an algorithm and a corporation access to which of the things on your feed you are most reactive to—it’s really useful information that tells them to not just tailor content to what they think you like, but they can push you.”

Grosser’s latest project is an attempt to push back. He made a browser extension he’s calling Go Rando, which intercepts each time you click a reaction button on Facebook, then uses a random-number generator to select a reaction for you. “If you click ‘Like,’ you might get ‘Angry,’ or you might get ‘Haha,’ or you might get ‘Sad,’” Grosser told me. “Users can still hover and select a specific reaction if they want to—but it will randomize their reactions for them.”

The project is meant to encourage people to question what they’re doing when they click a Facebook reaction button. He wants people to ask: “Where does this data go? Who benefits from it? And who is made most vulnerable by it?”

“I want people to think about who is reading this data,” Grosser told me. “We think of [clicking reaction buttons for the benefit of] our friends, but the primary consumers of this data are not our friends. It’s for the news feed algorithm, advertising message profiling, predictive analytics. All these different systems that are looking to mine this data, hoping to understand our hopes or fears as a way of deciding how to sell us something, as a way of deciding whether we’re dangerous, as a way of deciding whether we’re worthy of getting a loan.”

Grosser concedes that actually using the browser extensions is, at times, awkward. Like when a friend of his shared good news—excitement about the opening of a new art exhibit. Grosser clicked the “like” button and Go Rando selected a sad-face reaction for him. “A lot of my friends have seen me post about my project, but they still are taken aback,” he says, “It’s like, ‘What’s going on? What are you sad about?’ It forces people to go into this conversation about what reactions are and how they might mean something or not mean something, or how they can be interpreted.”

Scrolling through a News Feed and clicking reaction buttons may feel as ethereal as waving at a friend from across a crowded room. It’s not.

“It’s almost a compulsive, involuntary behavior at this point,” Grosser said. “I think a lot of people can identify with the feeling of ‘liking’ something even if they didn’t really like it, because it’s important to indicate presence or having seen the item.”

The bottom line is this: Every time you click a button on Facebook, every time you indicate to a friend you’ve seen whatever it is they’ve posted, Facebook sees you back.

NEXT STORY: How to Teach a Car a Traffic Sign

X
This website uses cookies to enhance user experience and to analyze performance and traffic on our website. We also share information about your use of our site with our social media, advertising and analytics partners. Learn More / Do Not Sell My Personal Information
Accept Cookies
X
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Do Not Sell My Personal Information

When you visit our website, we store cookies on your browser to collect information. The information collected might relate to you, your preferences or your device, and is mostly used to make the site work as you expect it to and to provide a more personalized web experience. However, you can choose not to allow certain types of cookies, which may impact your experience of the site and the services we are able to offer. Click on the different category headings to find out more and change our default settings according to your preference. You cannot opt-out of our First Party Strictly Necessary Cookies as they are deployed in order to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting the cookie banner and remembering your settings, to log into your account, to redirect you when you log out, etc.). For more information about the First and Third Party Cookies used please follow this link.

Allow All Cookies

Manage Consent Preferences

Strictly Necessary Cookies - Always Active

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data, Targeting & Social Media Cookies

Under the California Consumer Privacy Act, you have the right to opt-out of the sale of your personal information to third parties. These cookies collect information for analytics and to personalize your experience with targeted ads. You may exercise your right to opt out of the sale of personal information by using this toggle switch. If you opt out we will not be able to offer you personalised ads and will not hand over your personal information to any third parties. Additionally, you may contact our legal department for further clarification about your rights as a California consumer by using this Exercise My Rights link

If you have enabled privacy controls on your browser (such as a plugin), we have to take that as a valid request to opt-out. Therefore we would not be able to track your activity through the web. This may affect our ability to personalize ads according to your preferences.

Targeting cookies may be set through our site by our advertising partners. They may be used by those companies to build a profile of your interests and show you relevant adverts on other sites. They do not store directly personal information, but are based on uniquely identifying your browser and internet device. If you do not allow these cookies, you will experience less targeted advertising.

Social media cookies are set by a range of social media services that we have added to the site to enable you to share our content with your friends and networks. They are capable of tracking your browser across other sites and building up a profile of your interests. This may impact the content and messages you see on other websites you visit. If you do not allow these cookies you may not be able to use or see these sharing tools.

If you want to opt out of all of our lead reports and lists, please submit a privacy request at our Do Not Sell page.

Save Settings
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Cookie List

A cookie is a small piece of data (text file) that a website – when visited by a user – asks your browser to store on your device in order to remember information about you, such as your language preference or login information. Those cookies are set by us and called first-party cookies. We also use third-party cookies – which are cookies from a domain different than the domain of the website you are visiting – for our advertising and marketing efforts. More specifically, we use cookies and other tracking technologies for the following purposes:

Strictly Necessary Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Functional Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Performance Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Social Media Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Targeting Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.