James Berri traveled three hours to Sacramento earlier this month for his first Pride parade, one of hundreds of annual LGBTQ celebrations across America. Berri also talked about the experience on Facebook, reading and reacting to other people’s posts with thumbs-up likes and Facebook’s new rainbow “Pride” emoji. Throughout June, the platform is offering a rainbow flag alongside likes, hearts, and angry faces that people can click on to react to others’ posts and comments. Yet Berri, a 21-year-old transgender artist, is conflicted over the fact that not everyone can use this new rainbow button.
Back in Fresno, Berri wondered how Facebook decides who’s eligible. “Why don’t they have it, too?” he asked, referring to friends sitting with him in a salon in the larger, less-prominent California city. “It makes me confused for my friends.”
One friend disagreed: “Maybe I don’t want my family to actively know that I’m in all of these things because they’re just gonna—they’re not gonna like it.”
As a rare commodity, the Pride reaction has attracted a rainbow hunt among Facebook users. This June, Facebook announced that the feature would be available in “major markets with Pride celebrations” and for people who follow the company’s LGBTQ page. They also announced that the rainbow would “not be available everywhere.” For example, Facebook limits access in countries where LGBTQ rights are politically risky. Yet many Americans, like Berri’s Fresno friends, also missed out.
Is Facebook’s rollout of rainbow flags a case of algorithmic hypocrisy, user protection, or something else? Using their ability to detect people’s location and interests, the company's algorithms are choosing which people get the rainbow flag while hiding it from others. At first glance, this approach looks like it could contribute to the creation of political bubbles, as a feature promoted in progressive cities and less available in the rest of America. If real, these discriminatory political bubbles could constitute a secret kind of “digital gerrymandering,” according to Harvard Law professor Jonathan Zittrain.