Facebook’s devil is in the defaults
It's time for Facebook to urgently reverse its default settings, says non-Facebook user and Victoria University of Wellington researcher Alex Beattie
After the Christchurch terrorist attack last Friday, much has been said about the role of social media.
In particular, Facebook has been criticised for failing to quickly take down the shooter’s video. As a result, millions of people – including children – were exposed to brutal content they will likely never forget.
Much of the debate has focused on Facebook’s content moderation policy. This discussion is critical but isn’t new – last year, it was leaked that Facebook moderators have on average eight seconds to assess whether content is harmful.
And moderation is only one of the mechanisms we can scrutinise. There is much more that can be done to prevent disgusting content from spreading.
One quick fix we could demand is for Facebook to reverse the default setting of the auto-playing video.
The auto-playing video is a feature hand-picked by Facebook to maximise the flow of information and the time we spend online.
Facebook is built on a philosophy that “information wants to be free”. This laissez faire attitude means Facebook is designed to ensure content flows as freely as possible on the platform. It’s why we’re often encouraged by Facebook to add new friends, notifications are coloured red, and videos in our newsfeeds start playing automatically.
But Facebook doesn’t have to be designed in such a frictionless way. Speedbumps can be placed to impede or slow down the flow of hateful content before it spreads too far.
Thanks to studies in psychology and behavioural economics, experts are learning that the devil is in the defaults. It’s one of the reasons we’re automatically selected into KiwiSaver when we get our first job. Without the nudge, many of us would forget to join the savings scheme. Believe me, I was one of them.
And medical ethicists know people are more likely to donate their organs if the obligatory question is designed to be opt-out as opposed to opt-in.
As it stands, Facebook and other platforms do provide users with the option to tweak their settings and turn off the auto-playing video. But this neglects to address the fundamental issue that defaults exploit: the scarcity of our attention.
In an age of information overload, we have such little time to attend to every choice that comes our way. This is why default settings are so important, as we’re highly likely to accept the majority of them without thinking.
There’s also the issue of software updates that can override any settings you tweak.
After the Christchurch terrorist attack, we should be asking whether videos should start playing automatically. To put it frankly, how many Facebook users would have been exposed if they had to press play?
Facebook cannot plead ignorance here. It’s been well documented that it hires behavioural experts to exploit our psychological weaknesses to maximise the time we spend on its platform.
Perhaps we need similar experts to assess the psychological slipperiness of Facebook. Only then can certain design practices be regulated or banned. The same scrutiny could be applied to Twitter, Reddit and other popular platforms where people publish video content.
Further research needs to be undertaken to develop the field of default ethics. For example, we need to outline what the actual benefits and costs of auto-playing videos are. As it stands, we’re binge-watching guinea pigs in a laboratory of spreadable media. Or at least that’s the way Facebook sees us.
Maybe Facebook should take some responsibility for the content it proliferates.
It could begin by looking at its defaults.
Alex Beattie deleted his Facebook account in 2014.