Thought Experiment: Social Media Filter Bubbles
Updated: Mar 21, 2020
I recently read some Facebook posts criticizing Kirsten Gillibrand and Bernie Sanders for agreeing to be interviewed on Fox News. Why is that bad? Is it bad?
Here are some thoughts on why it's important to think about this question.
Gillibrand and Sanders are voices that will speak to the same issues that many Fox News viewers care about. Healthcare, taxes, jobs. Except now the listeners would get to hear another point of view. What a way to burst the Fox News information bubble -- and right on Fox News!
Earlier this year, my friend, Joshua, asked me to look twice at a series of charts on fivethirtyeight.com. This series of double line charts shows Trump's approval rating over his days as president compared to the approval rating of past presidents at the same time in their tenure as president.
What is different about Trump's popularity? Take a look.
I grabbed this screenshot today, on day 834 of Trump's tenure. The green line hovering at around 40% is Trump's approval, the black line is that of the other president.
Trump's line is steady, flat, over the course of his tenure as president. No matter what is happening. Babies in cages. Government shut down. Michael Cohen testifying. It is always at around 40%. These real life events are all over the news, even CNN, and New York's Post.
Why aren't people's minds changing?
The only other president where we see this type of trend is Barack Obama, whose approval rating was also relatively flat.
Both Obama and Trump are presidents in an age of social media. Facebook, Twitter and now Instagram dominate as the places where conversation, personal influencing and outright debate happens.
If you spend time on social media, I urge you to take the time to watch the video and read on.
This is a 2011 TED Talk by Eli Pariser, an online activist and thinker. Have a look.
Too many of us (myself included) are comfortable in our filter bubbles. We feel better, especially when things feel so god-awful out there.
These bubbles are created by the artificial intelligence that drives the business model underlying Facebook, Google and others. For example it's easy to think of search services such as Google as being neutral. We use keywords, and the system returns results based on those keywords. Right? No. Google returns my search results based on the multitude of data points that its systems have learned about me over my many years of searching and using Google services. The closer it can get me to "exactly what I am looking for" the better. That's good customer service, right?
Well, yes and no. Yes, maybe it helps me find my brand of running shoes faster. No, because Google algorithms are making decisions for me. And I don't know how they are deciding.
If you want to try this yourself, grab a friend or family member and do a parallel search for exactly the same thing.
The algorithms determine what you see on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram.
Here's the ask: the next time you open any of these platforms, think about the order of your news feed. Attention is the currency of the social media platform business model. What you see is the content that the algorithms have determined is most likely to keep you there. Content that makes you comfortable. Content that will confirm much of what you already believe.
So, back to Kirsten Gillibrand and Bernie Sanders appearing on Fox News. If they were real social progressives, they would steer clear, right? Right?
Fox News viewers care about many of the things that Gillibrand and Sanders talk about. Healthcare. Taxes. Jobs. And it's an opportunity to pierce filter bubbles.
These will be dicey times ahead even within our filter bubbles. If the intra-bubble debates concern you, go ahead and take the Indivisible Pledge.
Indivisible New Rochelle Co-Lead