(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Social networks such as YouTube and Facebook have the power to make content go “viral,” spreading it at an unprecedented and uncontrollable pace. Facebook took it down 1.5 million times and it still reappeared. And it was put back up on YouTube every second for 24 hours, according to New Zealand’s prime minister Jacinda Ardern, who’s teaming up with French president Emmanuel Macron to try to tackle the plague of harmful online content. The two leaders’ initiative, known as the “Christchurch Call,” is the start of a long process that will need to balance all sorts of issues – from freedom of speech to privacy. But for it to have any effect at all, policymakers must get under the hood of the social media companies’ software and understand how content gets fed to viewers in the first place. While Macron has taken the encouraging first step of embedding government officials in Facebook’s offices to monitor how it polices content, it’s yet to be seen how far these people will grasp the technology or how great their access will be to the company’s real “secret sauce”: Its algorithms. Where it all gets complicated is the potential business conflict between maximizing engagement, which is what advertisers (and shareholders) want, and minimizing extreme content, which is what politicians are demanding. For instance, if the network’s goal is to increase time spent watching videos, is the problem that its algorithms will always promote content that’s most likely to trigger an emotional reaction? If so, that’s catnip for advertisers, but also for purveyors of noxious content. And just how much control do these companies even have over what their black-box filters pump out?
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May 22, 2019
May 22, 2019