Facebook and Twitter appear to be giving users more control over their feeds. But is this really true?

There’s been a lot of controversy lately over the power social media has, whether it’s the ability to impact an election through the spread of fake news or the ability to exclude certain races from seeing particular ads. Facebook and Twitter, as the focal points for most of this controversy, have each taken measures designed to mitigate (or eliminate) the problems as much as possible.

Twitter’s mute & Facebook’s mute function

Twitter, confronted with a rise in hate speech in the aftermath of the election, announced that users would be able to mute certain conversations and filter out all tweets with a specific word or phrase from their feed. Twitter has also made it easier to report hate speech, and retrained its support teams to more adequately respond to such reports.

Meanwhile, Facebook is testing a new feature that allows people to mute potentially distressing ads. At the moment, only ads promoting alcohol or parenting-related messages can be disabled, although Facebook has said that it is open to adding more topics should users report them as upsetting.

Previously, Facebook only allowed users to indicate the types of ads they’d like to see — and not which ones they’d like to avoid. Mark Rabkin, VP of core ads at Facebook, explained the rationale behind implementing such a change, noting that “ads about parenting and new baby stuff” could be “really upsetting” for “families who experience the loss of a child.”

The flip side

Through Twitter mute and Facebook’s mute functionality, these social giants are giving users marginally more power over the content in their news feeds. However, Facebook’s decision to allow users to block any content that might be offensive to them is part and parcel of their goal to make their ad experience more relevant. After all, they are only allowing people to block certain types of ads —  not ads in their entirety. Similarly, Twitter mute doesn’t prevent hate speech from occurring on the platform; it merely hides it from view.

In actuality, by reducing the risk that their users become hurt, offended, or emotionally distressed by content that appears on their feed, Twitter and Facebook are removing some of the barriers that might have prevented people from using their platforms.

This doesn’t mean that these new settings are purely a ploy to increase engagement; rather, they are testaments to the changing nature of social media. Twitter understands that in order to succeed, it needs to come up with a comprehensive solution to protect users from attack. Facebook knows that people are uncomfortable with the accuracy of their ad targeting technology, so it needs to find a way to reassure its members.

What this means for brands

It may seem that, by choosing to make their feeds more user-friendly, Facebook and Twitter are becoming less brand-friendly. After all, if you’re an alcohol brand or a company whose target audience is made up of families, Facebook’s announcement is not going to make you jump for joy. But in general, these functions are unlikely to change the relationship between brand and social media network.

Twitter mute has been worrying brands since an earlier version of it was first introduced in 2014. Ultimately, it has had very little effect on the way brands conduct themselves on the site, and the expansion of the mute function is unlikely to change that.

It comes down to who uses these mute functions, and how: if only those who were previously alcoholics or suffered family tragedy use them in order to prevent emotional distress, then brands shouldn’t have much to worry about. If people begin using these tools in an effort to cut down on the number of ads they see, then it might prove problematic, but only for those brands whose ads are affected (since opting out of certain types of ads doesn’t affect the total number of ads a person sees).

A step in the right direction?

Facebook and Twitter have offered their users some basic solutions to pressing problems. Facebook’s test of a new feature that allows its users to block certain ads that may be emotionally distressing to them and the expansion of Twitter mute are both attempts to make social network feeds safer spaces.

These are important and necessary steps. Users need to feel comfortable on these sites; otherwise, their freedom of speech is threatened. But simply blocking content that might be offensive doesn’t solve these problems — it might actually make them worse, by preventing constructive debate and turning news feeds into echo chambers. And if people aren’t receptive to new ideas, chances are, they won’t be receptive to new brands either.