Facebook News Feed is ten years old this week. However, it is not only in the news because it has an anniversary – there is also a rise once more in concerns that Facebook News Feed, through its use of personalisation algorithms, is encouraging a distorted view of the world and in particular, making it harder to see views and ideas that you might feel uncomfortable about.

This is not new – see Eli Pariser’s TED talk from 2011, about what he calls “filter bubbles”, more commonly known now as “echo chambers”. Pariser highlights the fact that algorithms across the internet – echo chambers are not limited to Facebook – are ensuring that the experience you have online is very much personalised to you and your interests.

Facebook have been very upfront about this in the past – the company’s #1 News Feed Value is:

“keeping you connected to the people, places and things you want to be connected to.”

The critical word here of course is “want” – the algorithms on Facebook (and Google and Yahoo and so on) predict what you want to see based on your circumstances, online behaviour including previous clicks and personal information. And of course they do this so that we spend longer online overall and click on more links, so they can increase their revenues.

So far so good – but the waters have been muddied this week as Mark Zuckerberg claims in retaliation that Facebook News Feed is limiting, that it is “the most diverse form of media” that has ever existed, pointing to the fact that before the internet people typically got their news from a single source, a particular newspaper or TV station. Thanks to social media “more people are getting exposed to a larger and more diverse set of opinions”. In his rebuttal he cites the modelling workExposure to Ideologically Diverse News and Opinion’ by E. Bakshy, S. Messing, L. Adamic published in Science. The authors claim that their research runs counter to the echo chamber thinking. But they end by saying…..

“The composition of our social networks is the most important factor affecting the mix of content encountered on social media with individual choice also playing a large role. News Feed ranking has a smaller impact on the diversity of information we see from the other side.”

In other words, it’s not their algorithms; it’s who we know that impacts what we see.

Maybe Mark Zuckerberg should look at the Pew Research Centre findings which show that while only 23% of Facebook users on average say that posts about politics on Facebook are mostly or always in line with their own view i.e., that they live in an “echo chamber”, this rises to 32% of those with consistent liberal views and 47% of those with consistent conservative views.

The problem, which was referenced by our very own Georgiana in her August blog, is that we are becoming more polarised in our political views, particularly in America, and as more and more people hold consistent liberal and conservative views, more people will be living in echo chambers, which in turn will beget more polarisation and the cycle will continue.


Pew Research Centre

I’m sure everyone reading this blog has noticed the effect of personalisation themselves – you only have to compare the results of your Google search with a teenager – to see the vast difference in your online worlds.  As a relatively recent user of Facebook, I’m in love with the continual stream of news and updates from my “friends”. There are few twee posts on my news feed (no kittens and only one picture of a first day at school). The first ten right now are as follows – I’ve included the original source and who posted/shared it…..

  1. Solar Power in the USA – cnbc.com – friend
  2. How we need to improve the way we inspire girls – Katherineyoungcreative.com – friend
  3. Why women should be learning to invest wisely – Eventbrite.co.uk – suggested post
  4. Earth temperature timeline – xkcd.com – friend
  5. Update on David Cameron’s “petulant” resignation – telegraph.co.uk – friend
  6. Picture of daughter’s boyfriend at a fancy dress party – friend
  7. Daughter’s friend’s friend’s updated cover picture – friend
  8. Chat about Sunderland FC and Spurs – friend
  9. Do you know what a red and white striped cane means? – BBC special report – friend
  10. This is water – the full version of David Foster Wallace’s commencement speech – youtube.com – friend

Looking at this list, which is pretty typical of my news feed, you would rightly guess I was a left leaning, financially savvy, environmentally aware, literary feminist with a sometime habit of spying on my children’s friends! Having seen this list, it probably won’t surprise you that I saw ZERO pro Brexit items on my Facebook news feed in the run up to the referendum: and so despite seeing in the polls that the Brexit and Remain camps were running neck and neck and despite knowing logically that my news feed is personalised to my interests – I felt certain that Remain would win on the day.

That’s the trouble with echo chambers – they enhance parochial thinking. At least we will know better next time – I hope….