Sunday, May 12, 2019

The trouble with Facebook and what it has in common with scientific publishing.

[In case you’d rather read than listen, a full transcript follows below.]

Today, I want to talk about Facebook. Yes, Facebook, the social media website, I’m sure you have heard of them.

Facebook currently gets a lot of media attention. And not in a good way. That’s because not only has Facebook collected and passed on user-information without those user’s consent, it has also provided a platform for the organized spread of political misinformation, aka “fake news”.

I doubt you were surprised by this. It’s hardly a breakthrough insight that an almost monopoly on the filtering of information is bad for democracy. This is, after all, why we have freedom of the press written into the constitution: To prevent an information monopoly. And when it comes to the internet, this is a problem that scientists have written about at least for two decades.

Originally the worry of scientists, however, focused on search engines as news providers. This role, we now know, has been taken over by social media, but it’s the same problem: Some company’s algorithm comes to select what information users do and do not see prominently. And this way of selecting our information can dramatically affect our opinion.

A key paper on this problem is a 2003 article by three political scientists whocoined the term “Googlearchy”. They wrote back then:

“Though no one expected that every page on the Web would receive an exactly equal share of attention, many have assumed that the Web would be dramatically more egalitarian in this regard than traditional media. Our empirical results, however, suggest enormous disparities in the number of links pointing to political sites in a given category. In each of the highly diverse political communities we study, a small number of heavily-linked sites receive more links than the rest of the sites combined, effectively dominating the community they are a part of […]

We introduce a new term to describe the organizational structure we find: “googlearchy” –  the rule of the most heavily linked. We ultimately conclude that the structure of the Web funnels users to only a few heavily-linked sites in each political category.”

We have now become so used to this “rule of the most heavily linked” that we have stopped even complaining about it, though maybe we should now call it the “rule of the most heavily liked.”

But what these political scientists did not discuss back then, was that of course people would try to exploit these algorithms and then attempt to deliberately misinform others. So really the situation is worse now than they made it sound in 2003.  

Why am I telling you this? Because it occurred to me recently that the problem with Facebook’s omnipotent algorithm is very similar to a problem we see with scientific publishing. In scientific publishing, we also have a widely used technique for filtering information that is causing trouble. In this case, we filter which publications or authors we judge as promising.

For this filtering, it has become common to look at the number of citations that a paper receives. And this does cause problems, because the number of citations may be entirely disconnected from the real world impact of a research direction. The only thing the number of citations really demonstrates is popularity. Citations are a measure that’s as disconnected from scientific relevance as the number of likes is from the truth value of an article on Facebook.

Of course the two situations are different in some ways. For example on social media there is little tradition of quoting sources. This has the effect that a lot of outlets copy news from each other, and that it is extra hard to check the accuracy of a statement. Another difference is that social media has a much faster turnover-rate than scientific publications. This means on social media people don’t have a lot of time to think before they pass on information. But in both cases we have a problem caused by the near monopoly of a single algorithm.

Now, when it comes to scientific publishing, we have an obvious solution. The problem both with the dominance of a few filtering algorithms and with the possibility of gaming comes from users being unable to customize the filtering algorithm. So with scientific publishing, just make it easier for scientists to use other ways to evaluate research works. This is the idea behind our website

The major reason that most scientists presently use the number of citations, or the number of publications, or the number of publications in journals with high impact factor, to decide what counts as “good science” is that these numbers are information they can easily access, while other numbers are not. It adds to this that when it comes to measures like the journal impact factor, no one really knows how it’s calculated.

Likewise, the problem with Facebook’s algorithm is that no one knows how it works, and it can’t be customized. If it was possible for users to customize what information they see, gaming would be much less of a problem. Well, needless to say, I am assuming here that the users’ customization would remain private information.

You may object that most users wouldn’t want to deal with the details, but this isn’t really necessary. It is sufficient if a small group of people generates templates that users can then chose from.

Let me give you a concrete example. I use Facebook mostly to share and discuss science news and to stay in touch with people I have on my “Close friends” list. I don’t want political news from Facebook, I am not interested in the social lives of people I don’t know, and if I want entertainment, I look for that elsewhere.

However, other people use Facebook entirely differently. Some spend a lot of time with groups, use it to organize events, look for distraction, or, I don’t know, to share cooking recipes, whatever. But right now, Facebook offers very little options to customize your news feed to suit your personal interests. The best you can do, really, is to sort people onto lists. But this is cumbersome and solves only some aspects of the sorting-problem.

So, I think an easy way to solve at least some of the problems with Facebook would be to allow a third-party plug to sort your news-feed. This would give users more control and also relieve Facebook of some responsibility.

Mark Zuckerberg once declared his motto clearly: “Move fast and break things. Unless you are breaking stuff, you are not moving fast enough.” Well, maybe it’s time to break Facebook’s dominance over information filtering.

Update: Now with Italian subtitles. Click on “CC” in the YouTube tool bar to turn on subtitles. Switch language in settings/gear icon.


  1. Isn't that like the cattle being asked for the most convenient packaging for them in a meat factory?

    1. rms,

      In case the cattle in your analogy are Facebook's users, you seem to be talking about how Facebook deals with the information of users post mortem. This is not what I am concerned with here. The brief answer to your question is: No.

    2. then perhaps the other way around "The trouble with scientific publishing and what is has in common with Facebook" would be perhaps more clear
      (and "the willingness of scientists to be treated like sheep", but that would be my personal addition)

  2. While the organization of information is one thing to be mindful of one must not forget the fundamental impact of the media by which it is disseminated.

    " Instead of tending towards a vast Alexandrian library the world has become a computer, an electronic brain, exactly as an infantile piece of science fiction. And as our senses have gone outside us, Big Brother goes inside. So, unless aware of this dynamic, we shall at once move into a phase of panic terrors, exactly befitting a small world of tribal drums, total interdependence, and superimposed co-existence. [...] Terror is the normal state of any oral society, for in it everything affects everything all the time. [...] In our long striving to recover for the Western world a unity of sensibility and of thought and feeling we have no more been prepared to accept the tribal consequences of such unity than we were ready for the fragmentation of the human psyche by print culture."
    -Marshall McLuhen, Gutenberg Galaxy p. 32.(1962)

    "Since Sputnik and the satellites, the planet is enclosed in a manmade environment that ends "Nature" and turns the globe into a repertory theater to be programmed. Shakespeare at the Globe mentioning "All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players" (As You Like It, Act II, Scene 7) has been justified by recent events in ways that would have struck him as entirely paradoxical. The results of living inside a proscenium arch of satellites is that the young now accept the public spaces of the earth as role-playing areas. Sensing this, they adopt costumes and roles and are ready to "do their thing" everywhere."

    -Marshall McLuhan, From Cliché to Archetype p.9-10 (1970)


  3. Strongly entrenched target, huge finances, But you're absolutely right, and you're trying. To do a job, there has to be a start. Best of luck, for everybody.

  4. We have to consider the massively distributed and real-time nature of Facebook's system. A hypothetical 'plugin' would need access to all of Facebook's content, as it is submitted; otherwise it's just doing additional filtering on what Facebook has already selected for you. This can't be done on the client (browser) end. Your personal filter plugin would have to be installed deep inside Facebook's server-side code.

  5. Oh! You *have* a FaceBook account.

    [And then, you make it bloody compulsory that I have a bloody account with some bloody random Sundar Pichai and Anjali Haryani's company. Bloody rich Indians. One, a southie brahmin, the other, a haryaNvi. Both JPBTIs. Enough said. Both, bloody rich.]


    1. Ajit,

      I have two accounts, a personal account and a "page" that is dedicated to this blog. Say what you wish, the comment sections on facebook work dramatically better than on blogger. From all the crappy social media platforms that we have, facebook is currently the least crappy one.

    2. Sabine,

      I do appreciate this blog, and I have zero wish to join Facebook. Facebook seems to have extended its role to include censorship. I have no problem about censoring violence, extreme porn, and suchlike, but when it comes to censoring people for their views, that goes too far.

      Censorship spreads and spreads - how long before powerful voices whisper in Mark Zuckerberg's ear about the damage you are doing by refusing to back a bigger collider.

      The underlying structure of the internet is pretty open, but if wealthy individuals somehow persuade everyone to communicate via their app, then it effectively becomes closed.

    3. David,

      We have long known that a democratic society cannot work if people in power are allowed to threaten or intimidate minorities. For this reason, some amount of censorship is necessary to protect democracy: Otherwise some people will effectively be silenced.

      Having said this, Facebook of course shouldn't make these rules. These are national laws that differ from one country to the next. Facebook, as every company, is required to play within the legal system of these countries if they want to do business there.

      I don't know what your comment about whispering about bigger colliders is supposed to mean.

      Some method of information filtering is necessary. For this we need apps. The only alternative is to not use the internet, which would be beyond stupid.

    4. Sabine,

      Sorry I wasn't clear, what I mean is that censorship has an awful tendency to spread, and your opposition is obviously disliked by many wealthy businessmen (who may not care a damn about science)- so at some point you might find yourself censored in some way.

      As regards the legal system, I guess there are no laws that stop Facebook censoring more extensively - just as any publisher can choose not to publish a book for whatever reason.

      "Facebook of course shouldn't make these rules", yes, but unfortunately the law does not enforce that.

  6. This is exactly what government is suppose to be doing to protect the public. Huge companies with obscene amounts of influence must be modified as needed (if not even broken into smaller entities that don’t have so much clout). That Facebook has gotten so little regulation so far given their position, seems like a vast oversight. Time to fix that.

    1. Dr. H and Eric, Isn't a core problem today a lack of personal sense of responsibility? Everywhere, at every level? Whatever the cost to others?
      If not, trying to fix facebook, or to engineer the atmosphere or to address other specific menaces might be invaluable uses of our resources.
      But, If so, wouldn't fixing irresponsible behavior attack a host of desperate problems at the same time?

    2. KWPD,
      Well sure, a dearth of personal responsibility might be thought of as a core problem. But how might we cause people in general to become “more responsible” to thus alleviate that issue? To me that sounds challenging in all sorts of ways. In the mean time it might be best to have government step in. And as Dr. H mentioned, we shouldn’t let government be what filters our information either. (I’m somehow reminded of not only China, but its impending apocalyptic Social Credit System.) I don’t know much about the H-index that she mentioned, but surely various productive modifications could be mandated of Facebook given what’s been happening.

    3. Eric, When I was a boy, personal responsibility was fairly common; it was the way we earned self respect.
      It was taught with the Plege of Allegiance in grade school, with Civics and the Constitution in High School, and required by employers to hold a job.
      My generation passed on problems enough, but we passed this on, too.
      If we could do it once in the US, people everywhere can do it.
      They probably will first need to want it more than what they are taught to expect today.

  7. Your argument is that writers of papers are inserting citations that have nothing whatsoever to do with what they are referring to, and that they're just sticking them in there to include something that's "cool". And that the reviewers of the papers don't know and don't care. I call bullshit.

    1. Archimedes,

      I haven't said anything of that sort. How about you try to understand what I am saying before blaming your lack of comprehension on me.

    2. Here's what you said:

      "The ONLY thing the number of citations really demonstrates is popularity. Citations are a measure that’s as disconnected from scientific relevance as the number of likes is from the truth value of an article on Facebook."

      That is exactly saying that when someone cites another paper in their own work, they are doing it not because that paper has relevance and scientific connection to their own, but only because that paper is "popular".

    3. Archimedes,

      "That is exactly saying that when someone cites another paper in their own work, they are doing it not because that paper has relevance and scientific connection to their own, but only because that paper is "popular"."

      No, it is not. I made no statement about why someone cites someone else. I already told you to please first think before you blame me for your lack of comprehension, but apparently I was expecting too much.

    4. It really is amazing that you can have your own words right in front of you and still say that they don't mean what they clearly do. Your typical arrogant, scornful replies to anyone who contradicts you are not arguments in your favor, and they have no substance. Try again.

    5. You do not "contradict" me, you are evidently unable to comprehend even simple sentences. That you have now retreated to ad hominem attacks rather than admitting your mistakes does not work in your favor. You do not have to bother submitting further comments, this conversation ends here. I hope you will finally manage to understand your mistake.

  8. Hi Sabine,
    Hope your day is going well.

    Versteh mich nicht.
    It has never been
    - nor ever will be
    a credible destination for publishing scientific papers.
    Ugh, Ich wieB nicht wo ich
    anfangen soll.
    If I have time, I'll comment in extreme detail tomorrow.
    - if you want,. let me know.
    Otherwise, I'll borrow your words.
    "Ich wieB nicht,
    warum wir uberhaupt
    daruber reden".
    for now,
    Guten Nacht
    - Love Your Work

  9. Philosopher Eric,

    Yes, government is supposed to regulate these companies, but government should not be filtering our information either, so regulation alone will not solve the problem. The size of the company is not what causes the problem in the first place, the problem is a lack of alternatives. The h-index is not a large companies. It just so happens that many web-sites have adopted it, and few alternatives. This is what is causing the problem.

  10. The trouble with Facebook is the lack of competitive power to face Facebook.


  11. The whole Facebook controversy is a bit over my head. I've read the NYTimes article by Chris Hughes[1] (and seen him interviewed on TV, and I sort of "get it"), but I can't connect to all the hubbub. All I use Facebook for is to "locally" connect to people I know personally - some relatives and friends who use Facebook - and perhaps to check for local events in my area. I never see any "news" - politics, science, technology - at all on Facebook. For that, the only "social media" platform I use is Twitter.

    Does Twitter cause the same problems as Facebook? Is Twitter as dangerous to society as Facebook is? Maybe so, if one reads some[2] Twitter feeds. :) If Facebook just became a "local" thing (again), I don't see the downside.

    [2] @realDonaldTrump

    1. Philip,

      It may depend on where you live and, yes, also on what you have "liked" in the past. I happen to have a lot of facebook friends in the USA and Great Britain, and during the presidential election / Brexit campaign, my feed was full with political news from those countries. Nevermind that I do not actually live there and, as I said, don't get my political news from facebook. Still, for some months, Trump and Brexit was pretty much the only thing in my feed.

      And, yes, I have seen my share of obviously "fake news", both about Trump and Hillary. Since I don't share political news out of principle, I hope I didn't spread any. In any case, I have no reason to doubt that it's as bad as they say.

      You may want to check out this TED talk about Facebook and the Brexit campaign. It's really good.

      Fwiw, facebook seems to have changed their algorithm dramatically, because since a couple of months all the political news have indeed almost disappeared from my feed. Unfortunately, I don't care much about "local events" either, so now there's that. And don't get me started on how people constantly add me to groups I don't want to be part of.

      The twitter home feed is so entirely dysfunctional, I don't use it at all. Twitter has a bot problem which we've long known about, but that's a different matter.

    2. I have thought that the space of all (Twitter) tweets (and now threads, which are like paths in Twitter space) is an interesting scientific subject - and I'm sure papers and theses have already been written on it. And tools for managing the Twitter "information firehose" are apparently there, but only to a minor extent. But that there is a Facebook space of information (or misinformation) that is harming the world is fascinating.

  12. How do you want to prevent the Pareto distribution and preferential attachment, it's system inherent?

    1. "System inherent" assumes a fixed system, which is a mistake. Besides that, I don't know what makes you think I have a problem with preferential attachment. The problem is that the "preferential" attachment at present does not actually represent user's "preferences", instead it represents who plays the game the best.

    2. Markus,

      I was assuming that your comment was about facebook. Regarding citations, of course you can cite whoever you want, but that's missing the point. It's not about who you cite but about who cites you. That influences what you work on to begin with. Same with facebook. What people like, what people share, that's what news providers will try to deliver.

  13. Isn't everybody free to cite whoever (s)he wants ? Could one be denied to publish a paper which only cites papers with low citation rates ? What's that game you are refering to ?

    I never got the impression that citation rate is a bad measure of the RELATIVE quality of scientific work. E.g. the work of Nobel Prize winners is always highly cited.
    The bigger problem I see with the number of publications. Too often one encounters scientist who more or less propagate their work via cut and past from one paper to the next.

  14. I see, it's better work on popular and oftentimes useless topics like "AdS/CFT" :-)

    1. They may be useful, but the point is that usefulness is not relevant. What's relevant is the popularity.

  15. Hello Sabine,

    thank you for pointing these related problems out!
    This is very important to democracy and to science – to us.

    But what we gonna do about it?
    – To please our government to help us? How ever …
    – To please Facebook to be kind to us and change their behaviour for our needs and make not as much money out of their power as they can make now?

    That both sounds unrealistic to me at the moment, I have to confess.

    I decided that the only way to change the things is to change my own behaviour.

    But therefore I need an alternative platform to Facebook. So I decided to go ahead and donate for a platform that will have the news feed under the control of the user. It is open source and only driven by small donations of private users and not made by companies. No advertising.
    I went even more forward and code now for this project as well. It is still in development, but it gets shape now.

    It is called Human Connection.

    Hope it’s okay to name it here, because otherwise we can not make it a real alternative.

    Greets and go ahead, like you do. I'll do as well.

  16. I published a paper some time back where a reviewer wanted more citations, where I already had 15 or so on a short 4-5 page paper. I had to reference some over a number of minutia points. Einstein's paper on the Pondermotive force of moving charged bodies, which ushered in special relativity, cited no other papers.

    Social media is just the start. Notice how people are addicted to smart phones. People now walk around like zombies looking at them. Experiments are being done with direct brain readouts, and already from just surface measurements of neural activity thoughts can be downloaded into text files. This stuff is real. The current internet has as its primary nodes computers, and I think before long that may be brains. In some areas the Star Trek franchises were prophetic, and I think one of those might be in the fictional BORG. The BORG were computer interfaced people or aliens, it was never quite clear on that, who functioned completely as a mass mind.

    The internet was doomed to become stratified. This is particularly once it became a conduit for financial operations and profits. We humans are very good at a number of things. One of them is tearing up the natural world in order to convert it into trash. Another is in forming hierarchies of power over just about anything you can imagine. Science and the internet are no exception.

  17. IMO citations are irrelevant. It's hard to be popular if a theory is "incomprehensible" to most people including scientists. Scientific revolutions are often like this. If they were easy, they would have been discovered long ago. Revolutions are unlikely to come from popular mainstream ideas. Popular and revolution are almost a contradiction.

  18. I never became part of Facebook or any major social media and after all these years It hasn't felt like I've missed much. <--- that's a possible solution to the problem for others too.


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