Viewpoint

Why the Facebook ‘newsfeed’ is a misnomer

In the real world of electoral politics, Hillary Clinton wins only if she gets the most votes. But according to the new breed of clickbait headlines that proliferate on Facebook, an oration that’s rousing enough, or a tweet that’s snarky enough, can singlehandedly vaporize the Republican nominee.

“Obama Just Annihilated Donald Trump with the Whole World Watching at DNC,” the website PoliticusUSA declared during last week’s Democratic National Convention. After the GOP candidate criticized the parents of a Muslim US Army captain who died in Iraq – and sparked a social-media backlash – The Root reported that “Twitter Destroys Donald Trump with #TrumpSacrifices.”

These articles never live up to their billing. Somehow, despite being annihilated, destroyed, and defeated, Trump is still campaigning and has a genuine shot at winning.

Memo to dedicated partisans: You’re not helping your cause by sharing wishful-thinking clickbait. Facebook’s “news feed” is a misnomer; these stories are fantasies, built on the hope that politicians you dislike will shrink away because of how emphatically someone denounced them.

Blame Facebook for rewarding political escapism. The social network’s algorithm shows people material that affirms their ideological instincts rather than challenging them.

Recently, The Wall Street Journal built a useful tool called “Blue Feed, Red Feed.” In its liberal version of Facebook, the GOP nominee has been vanquished a hundred times over. Meanwhile, the conservative version features “stories” with headlines such as “Trump Just Put the FEAR in Hillary with 5 Simple Words She Won’t Soon Forget.”

A few election cycles ago, before the Facebook era began in earnest, liberals who were in denial about George W. Bush could buy t-shirts that said “Bartlet is my president.” This was funny but also pitiful. Jed Bartlet, of course, was the fictitious commander in chief on “The West Wing.” Democrats had a TV show, while Republicans had the White House.

Living in an alternate political reality is even easier now, because Facebook has changed the way Americans consume news. Sometimes, the company uses its power for good: Years ago, you couldn’t escape garbage stories with breathless “curiosity gap” headlines – “I Never Thought A Slice of Pie Would Make Me So Angry” – until Facebook tweaked its algorithm to banish them. Goodbye, Upworthy!

But if Facebook regrets the way it’s polarized the political dialogue in America, the company isn’t showing it. If anything, a major algorithm tweak earlier this summer will make the social network even more of an echo chamber. Which means that, in November, one part or another of the political spectrum is in for a rude surprise – a new president who, according to Facebook headlines, has already been scared off or annihilated.

Twitter: @danteramos.

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