Facebook and Smoothing Data

November 26, 2021

I like this headline: “The Thousands of Vulnerable People Harmed by Facebook and Instagram Are Lost in Meta’s Average User Data.” Here’s a passage I noticed:

consider a world in which Instagram has a rich-get-richer and poor-get-poorer effect on the well-being of users. A majority, those already doing well to begin with, find Instagram provides social affirmation and helps them stay connected to friends. A minority, those who are struggling with depression and loneliness, see these posts and wind up feeling worse. If you average them together in a study, you might not see much of a change over time.

The write up points out:

The tendency to ignore harm on the margins isn’t unique to mental health or even the consequences of social media. Allowing the bulk of experience to obscure the fate of smaller groups is a common mistake, and I’d argue that these are often the people society should be most concerned about. It can also be a pernicious tactic. Tobacco companies and scientists alike once argued that premature death among some smokers was not a serious concern because most people who have smoked a cigarette do not die of lung cancer.

I like the word “pernicious.” But the keeper is “cancer.” The idea is, it seems to me, that Facebook – sorry, meta — is “cancer.” Cancer is A term for diseases in which abnormal cells divide without control and can invade nearby tissues. Cancer evokes a particularly sonorous word too: Malignancy. Indeed the bound phrase when applied to one’s great aunt is particularly memorable; for example, Auntie has a malignant tumor.

Is Facebook — sorry, Meta — is smoothing numbers the way the local baker applies icing to a so-so cake laced with a trendy substances like cannabutter and cannaoil? My hunch is that dumping outliers, curve fitting, and subsetting data are handy little tools.

What’s the harm?

Stephen E Arnold, November 26, 2021

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