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Facebook and Twitter algorithms incentivize 'people to get enraged': Walter Isaacson

Max Zahn with Andy Serwer
·3 min read
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The CEOs of Facebook (FB), Google (GOOG, GOOGL), and Twitter (TWTR) will appear later this month before a U.S. House subcommittee to face questions over the spread of misinformation tied to the 2020 election and COVID-19.

In a new interview, author Walter Isaacson — best known for his biography of late Apple (AAPL) CEO Steve Jobs — said social media platforms should take more responsibility for the extremism and misleading information fostered by their sites. He offered a blistering criticism of the algorithms that determine what users see, calling them "dangerous."

The social media algorithms "spin us out of control" and "push us to be more and more extreme in our behavior," says Isaacson, author of a new book entitled “The Code Breaker: Jennifer Doudna, Gene Editing, and the Future of the Human Race.”

"Places like Facebook and Twitter — and other places that have ... algorithms that tend to incent people to get enraged and pass along misinformation," he says. "That is something that platforms like that should take more responsibility for."

Facebook-owned platform Instagram recommended false information about COVID-19 and the 2020 election, according to a report released on Tuesday by the U.K.-based advocacy group Center for Countering Digital Hate. The platform suggested about one false post per week to each of 15 profiles created by the nonprofit, the report found.

'It's trying to get me more outraged'

Facebook and Twitter faced elevated criticism last fall in the run-up to the 2020 election, which continued in the aftermath of the attack on the Capitol by supporters of former President Donald Trump. Facebook indefinitely suspended Trump's accounts on Facebook and Instagram on Jan. 7, the day after the attack. Twitter permanently banned Trump on Jan. 8.

Last May, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg reiterated that the platform wouldn’t interfere with inflammatory posts from Trump, prompting protests from employees. Some advertisers also boycotted Facebook over its refusal to stop hate speech, prompting Facebook to add labels to some posts.

On the whole, Twitter took a more aggressive approach to addressing posts from Trump that violate its rules. Alerts attached to his posts warned users about issues that range from misleading to manipulated content.

SAN FRANCISCO, CA - OCTOBER 20:  President/CEO of the Aspen Institute, Walter Isaacson, speaks onstage during
President/CEO of the Aspen Institute, Walter Isaacson, speaks onstage during "The Prime of Mr. Jeff Bezos" at the Vanity Fair New Establishment Summit at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts on October 20, 2016 in San Francisco, California. (Photo by Michael Kovac/Getty Images for Vanity Fair)

Isaacson spoke to Yahoo Finance Editor-in-Chief Andy Serwer in an episode of “Influencers with Andy Serwer,” a weekly interview series with leaders in business, politics, and entertainment.

Over the past 15 years, Isaacson has written biographies of Albert Einstein, Leonardo da Vinci, and Jobs. In addition to his writing, he teaches history at Tulane University and serves as a distinguished fellow at the Aspen Institute.

A Rhodes scholar, he took a job after graduation at a local newspaper in his hometown of New Orleans. He later climbed through the ranks at Time Magazine in the '80s and '90s covering presidential campaigns, the fall of the Soviet Union, and the rise of Silicon Valley.

Speaking to Yahoo Finance, Isaacson said he's seen firsthand how the social media algorithms nudge users toward extreme content, adding that he blames the advertising revenue model that incentivizes keeping users on the site.

"Even when I go on Facebook or Twitter or something, it's always recommending, [as] soon as I read somebody who has a particular political bent, it's trying to get me more outraged about somebody who has an even stronger opinion," he says.

"Those type of things come when you have an advertising model with an algorithm that's based on what's called engagement, but really should be called enragement," he adds.

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