By Iby Zafar
Donald Trump’s election and Brexit: two events that shocked the world. Both marked extreme shifts in each country’s direction, but many people have yet to recover from the shock of these results. Many of us did not see these once in a generation events coming. Even when the signs were evident, we either chose to laugh at them or ignore them completely. This is partly due to what is now referred to as the ‘filter bubble.’
Almost all of us like to think that our intake of news is factual. We believe that our consumption habits match reality and that we alone understand how the world works. Donald Trump’s election victory and the surprise referendum result in Britain have cast a spotlight on these so-called ‘bubbles’, splitting two nations in half. Are we to blame for the chasm that exists in modern society? Or are the social media giants who control our every thought to blame? Either way, I will do my best to hide the irony that this article will probably end up on Facebook and Twitter.
Hardly any of us enjoy admitting that we’re part of the problem. Indeed, many of us admit that media bubbles exist, but that they’re somehow more of a problem with the right-wing.
*Spoiler* they’re not.
While it is true that during the 2016 Presidential election that ‘fake news’ spread like wildfire across right wing circles, and conspiracies about Seth Rich and Pizzagate continue today among Donald’s fan base, the left also has a problem. Democrats are seemingly convinced that President Trump colluded with Russia in his electoral win, with left leaning conspiracy theorists refusing to just stop at collusion.
Although many more exist, here are some of my favourites: Bernie Sanders is a Russian agent, Paul Ryan was born Russian, Ayn Rand was a secret Russian agent and Vladimir Putin is in disguise in the White House pulling Trump’s strings. Quite clearly these are at the extreme end of some takes on the current political situation, yet every day new articles are written in their hundreds that further the divide between peoples of different ideological opinions. The psychology of this is well understood. Humans are sheep. Yes, even the professed anarchists, or those edgy teen communists are just sheep in the end. Human beings like to watch or hear things that they like or agree with. Everybody knows that, so who has the responsibility to keep us from boxing ourselves in?
In the early days of the internet, everyone thought humanity’s problems were fixed with its invention. The world had a global village in which to communicate, and information was no longer kept to the privileged as the world could now share in the vastness of human knowledge. Information was therefore democratized and all was good; until it wasn’t. The global village has seemingly divided us. Estimates suggest that around 60% of millennials use Facebook as their primary news source, which, if information was truly democratised and that global village theory was practiced perfectly, would not be a problem. The issue is that instead of editors controlling what appears in front of us in a newspaper, newsfeeds on social media are controlled by algorithms made by geeks in Silicon Valley. Facebook’s own algorithm is a heavily guarded secret that decides on the order, type, and prominence of posts that appear on your newsfeed, depending on your interactions with previous posts of a similar nature.
It’s well understood that Facebook’s algorithm is not unbiased; it is inherently biased in your favour. Yet the algorithm which decides the ideological nature of posts that show up on our newsfeed is not decided at Facebook HQ: it is mostly decided by us. If we never click on media of a different political persuasion, those posts are less likely to show up. That’s not Facebook’s fault, that’s ours. Furthermore, results from a study into interactions and exposure to ideological content on Facebook in 2015 found that the primary driver of a digital echo chamber is who we are friends with and which stories we click on. This research was conducted by Facebook, but even still, similar independent studies on a smaller scale have found similar results. Facebook’s algorithm therefore does not make conscious choices about what type of news appears on our feed: we do.
Facebook, Twitter, and Google are all getting a lot of grief at the moment as people try and find something to blame for political results not going their way. If it is our lack of effort to make friends with people from an alternative political background, or our meagre attempts to actively click on content that differs from our own particular ideology, then companies like Facebook should be absolved. Although Facebook denies its role in creating a political echo chamber online, it is true that Facebook bends its own rules in favour of whatever regime may be in power so that’s its services are not banned. The fact that it follows local laws enables it to exist in regimes that are considered oppressive. Although some have criticised Facebook for its different standards of censorship that prevents free speech, others have praised the network for its ability to circumnavigate the boundaries of traditional media.
We can only go so far with blaming algorithms for collective ignorance. If the software was truly based off artificial intelligence, then we could have a point. Yet AI does not exist and so the blame for filter bubbles and echo chambers online lies squarely at our own feet.