The cruelty of Facebook's algorithmic newsfeed

This image was removed due to legal reasons.

If this election brought out the worst in us as a nation, our newsfeeds contain all the evidence. There have been moments in time when social networks have given birth to positive, progressive organizing, but this election was different. With meme after meme, we watched—and probably even participated in—a nonstop churn of political rancor. At best, social media has been a hollow echo chamber. And at worst, it's been ground zero for not just our most virulent (and fruitless) debates, but the growth of a white nationalist movement.


There have been barely any moments over the past few months where social media has been anything but unbearable. But then, on actual election day, there was a *brief* moment of relief. People paused to simply celebrate the act of performing their civic duty; They posted selfies proudly displaying "I voted" stickers and some even (illegally) shared pictures of their ballots. These posts were a performance as all social media is, of course, but the impetus behind them seemed genuinely respectable.

Then, someone won. And some of our algorithmic newsfeeds on Facebook and Instagram didn't accurately reflect that.


My left-leaning networks were a mix of hope and horror, one following the other in an incomprehensible fashion. A post from a Hillary supporter sharing the joy of voting for the "first female president" would be followed by a person of color expressing horror at Trump's election, and living in country where they don't feel safe. A smiling woman in a pantsuit would come before a black square of mourning, the foreboding first meme of the Trump presidency.

When Instagram first introduced the change to a non-chronological newsfeed last spring, I didn't really care. Saying people were missing on average 70 percent of the content in their feeds, the order of posts is now based on a combination of factors: the likelihood of interest in a post, relationship to the poster, and timeliness. Instead of showing you the photos most recently posted by your friends, Instagram now shows "the moments we believe you will care about the most."


But the effect is that you see the world you want, the world your friend's want—not the world as it is. And on Tuesday night, it was strikingly dissonant.

The decision to go algorithmic as the network ballooned wasn't that surprising; Instagram was following in the footsteps of its parent company Facebook—the network that invented the newsfeed and now uses an ever-changing (and controversial) algorithm to determine what you see. Nonetheless, as people are with most technological changes, they were pissed.


Algorithmic Anger comes from a resistance to give over control of your content consumption to someone else, a powerful company with opaque values. What that means for our political climate and the media industry is harrowing and has been covered. But it also seems to stem from an expectation that a "newsfeed" is not editorial. New news should be at the top, followed by less new news in a neat, orderly queue.

This election has made me think there's something emotional to non-chronological resistance too. Checking my jumbled feeds last night was disorienting, the reality of the past six months and the moment they led to even harder to make sense of, even more painful. Just now, I opened my Instagram and was confronted with a hopeful selfie of a friend, an "I voted" sticker tacked on her right shoulder, with just the caption "HER" below it. I suddenly understood the privilege of being able to scroll back in time, and having the option to stop when I go too far.


Deputy editor of Real Future.

Share This Story

Get our newsletter