Your Facebook Algorithm Is Screwing With You

What is the responsibility of the platforms that serve us?

11.13.16
filter-bubbles-are-real-and-we-all-live-in-one-man-repeller-feature-1

Like many other New Yorkers, I went to my polling station early Tuesday morning and stood in line to vote with my husband and my daughter, who celebrated her first birthday on Election Day. We cast our ballots for Hillary Clinton, received our “I voted!” stickers, and left with the excitement that we were helping elect — at least symbolically because we live in very blue state — our first woman president.

But, Wednesday morning I found myself grieving, and not just because Trump won. I grieved for the fact that my information streams — Facebook, Twitter, Instagram — gave me false hope and a false sense of comfort that she would win. And they had, for months. All day, because it was Election Day, I checked in and saw friends posting voting selfies, sneaking ballot photos at their polling sites, talking about the privilege of voting in our democracy, of photos of Hillary over her career in politics paired with inspiration quotes. I saw Susan B. Anthony and the suffragettes, babies in The Future Is Female T-shirts, feminist fathers embracing their daughters and promising them tomorrow a woman would lead the free world, and hopeful messages of triumph over misogyny, racism, ignorance and hate. I saw 100% Hillary. Or at least 99%.

How did this happen?

filter-bubbles-are-real-and-we-all-live-in-one-man-repeller-feature-3

The “mainstream media” has received the bulk of the critique for catalyzing Trump’s message — that despite their takedowns they’ve been megaphones, for paying endless attention to him, for failing to confront fabrications with facts. But, going back to my grief on Wednesday morning: I grieved for feeling like I was caught off guard. For the hope I had and felt was affirmed by everyone around me. By the overwhelming critical mass on Instagram and Facebook and Twitter who all seemed to be agreeing: we’re going to win. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard in the aftermath, “I just wasn’t prepared for the fact that she could lose.”

For this, I ask: What about the responsibility of the platforms that serve up that media and that information? There are 1.79 billion people on Facebook, 317 million people on Twitter, and over 500 million people on Instagram. These platforms are global communities offering a chance for diverse people from all over the world, at all socioeconomic tiers, holding political views on all parts of the spectrum, to engage with one another. This is a profound opportunity to allow people with disparate opinions to connect and communicate, to dialogue in public.

As far as I can tell, that’s not happening. Instead, we see reflections of our own views. Content you share is met with suggested content that is similar. Photos and words from your friends are retweeted, reposted and requoted by friends and friends-of-friends and friends-of-friends-of-friends. You can “<3” or “thumbs up” something, but not thumbs down. These are platforms of approval. The more you are the same, the better.

As a person who has worked in tech for over a decade, I understand that the more you can group similar people, the easier it is to sell ads. This is because it’s easier to target them with products and services that their group will buy into. Those ad units are more lucrative if you can promise your clients that they are reaching a specific group, like a white conservative midwesterner women versus liberal retirees in Santa Cruz. I work at a company that has occasionally run Facebook ads, and have friends who work at Facebook, so I know how robust the targeting is and how complex the technology.

filter-bubbles-are-real-and-we-all-live-in-one-man-repeller-2

Data science and advertising technology are relatively young. How we use these tools — to make predictions about election results and about human behavior, to further our revenue streams and our businesses — have profound implications. As Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and other platforms continue to tweak their algorithms, they often further the agenda of generating revenue. And that is great — for them.

But, this also means they are serving like to like and furthering the hall of mirrors. Though these consequences may be unintended, this means we will continue to exist in artificially walled gardens, where we can feel comfortable and validated because our opinions and photos and lives seem perfectly in line with others. And as these election results show, completely disconnected from reality.

Let us hold the technology we use responsible, and ask the people who make decisions about these communities (looking at you: Mark Zuckerberg and Evan Williams!) to see the social responsibility of enabling dialogue between people with views and opinions that are different from ours. Platforms are a means to develop diverse communities, more empathy and experience a more holistic picture of the national and global dialogue, so we can take action accordingly.

Youngna Park is the COO at Tinybop, a startup making educational apps for kids. Follow her on Twitter @youngna and Instagram @youngnapark.

Illustration by Emily Zirimis.

 

Get more Brain Massage ?
  • Molly D

    Amen. To even begin to understand other people and their opinions and beliefs contrary to ours, it’s necessary to know that they, and to what scale, they exist first. We were blinded by an already blind media.

    If there was a platform that allowed and encouraged disparate opinions (is there? anyone know?) I feel like it would have to be policed the shit out of for it to be successful and respectful. Basically where is the online equivalent of the weekly softball league of dem and repub senators?

    • Mary

      I wonder about an antithetical platform, too, but you’re right–that would get nasty and certainly would exacerbate the division. It’s on us to take off the blinders on our own!

      • People are going to have to start talking to other people around them. It’s the only method of connecting that isn’t biased by some other entity.

        • rachel

          Don’t you think that part of the reason social media does this is because it’s part of something we do in our real, offline, lives? Especially here in the midwest, you barely have to leave your car to do anything, so you are exposed almost exclusively to the people you choose: liberal or conservative.

          • You know…you’re right. I’ve only lived in places that were very densely populated so you got a wide range of folks.

            Pen pals? LOL

  • There is no clear-cut answer to the media’s presence in this election. Yes it should present both sides and try to encompass varying voices. It did fail in that way, and it did skew projections of the presidency. But I also think that this election revealed tougher moral questions that would inevitably affect journalism. Hindsight is 20/20,of course, and now we see that the media’s fierce pro-Hillary efforts may not have been all they we hoped they would be, but we must consider the moral dilemma at the time. It is very hard to showcase the values of another group if they are so fundamentally wrong or unethical. This may be the role of the journalist, to help expose either side, but at some point I think basic human decency intervened and said: You know what, we have to demonstrate viewpoints that do not purport the albeit oft-indirect allusions to systematic racism, to nativism, to xenophobia, to sexism.

    This is where it gets so messy. And while I think it’s not fair to write off all Trump supporters are carrying these malicious sentiments in their hearts, their votes speak for them indirectly. Many of these accosting viewpoints are held subconsciously. They are demonstrated in daily micro-agressions that have become so undetectable and so commonplace, as to not register as racist or upsetting. White privilege has allowed people to overlook the residual effects of their actions on minority existence.

  • Adrianna

    I touched upon this on a previous Man Repeller post. I noted in that post that the Trump candidacy did not surprise me at all. I had already been exposed to the anxiety and fear that was driving his platform when I moved to Pennsylvania in 2003. I stayed Facebook friends with people who voted for McCain, Romney, and now Trump. I stayed Facebook friends with the people who said anti-Muslim, anti-Mexican, anti-Polish (I’m Polish), xenophobic, racist, homophobic, and sexist sentiments to my face.

    I felt it was my responsibility to remain exposed to their views and try to challenge what they posted. I was open to discuss my own views and posts. But I’ve got to say, after a few years of that, it never amount to a productive discussion.

    I think this election has shown us that you can’t accomplish social change with a tweet.

    • A German newspaper wrote about a white American Trump she-voter, who said (more or less) she thought he deserved her voice because he had worked so hard and she has also worked hard, all her life, and wouldn’t want to support people who didn’t work so hard. ?
      This is not an argument and not a fact, it is a belief, and you cannot argument against beliefs.
      The only party which should have researched those beliefs and worked their appropriate magic against them are the Dems.

  • Agreed! The Guardian also had a great article on this topic. https://www.theguardian.com/media/2016/jul/12/how-technology-disrupted-the-truth

  • Bonnie Clyde

    Point well made. It seems travel and having a beer at your local bar are still great ways to understand your fellow person.

    • Lou

      Yes! I think social media, for this reason, is in large part why we are so divided.

  • thanks for such a wonderful information…!

  • Kathryn Hannum

    The problem is that people self-tailor their feed. Given the chance to hear from someone with a different opinion, people generally are offended, get angry, and put their fingers in their ears (or the modern equivalent, a prompt block or de-friend)

    • snakehissken

      I’ll admit that I do that. I unfriended everyone who said racist things about Black Lives Matter. But although I have been devastated by the results, I was not surprised because I never forgot they were out there. It sounds like the author’s problem is that she forgot she had created a bubble. I never forget.

  • Jennifer
  • dk

    You could have certainly seen it in the Youtube comments section. I follow a lot of late night hosts. And in every anti-Trump monologue You could have seen the storm of Trump-supporters and the unusually big dislike to like ratio. At that time I dismissed them as a 13-year-old-trolls-with-a-keyboard. But it sure looks now that they were voters that made themselves heard.
    I, personally, struggle with the idea of making social media services as Twitter, Instagram and Facebook responsible. As You write, we create our own bubbles in those spaces. We curate our feeds and block/mute “friends” with whom we don’t agree. It’s much more our own fault and not Facebook’s, as much as I agree with Your argument of group ad targeting. And those sites aren’t real news sites, not in the classical understanding.
    If I would blame someone it would be the old media of not taking Trump seriously, of spending too much time laughing at his hands and not asking about his policies, of not engaging with his supporters (especially the normal ones).

  • Lou

    This was brilliant. It’s why I am off Instagram — it was starting to make me sick seeing the same opinions, aesthetics, etc. it’s not helping. The election, and the fact I was one of the many liberal shocked democrats, was a huge wake up call for me. And sticking around to hear the same sob stories from the same people who are equally in a bubble is not forward progress. We need compassion, we need to listen and get out of our comfort zones.

  • rebunka

    Hmm. Okay. I think I see what this article is getting at–there’s a deep rift in this country, we’re only talking to people whose views we agree with, etc. But I don’t really understand how Facebook as a company factors into this? If anything, that’s the place where I’ve see the most contention and dialogue, usually completely unasked for/unwarranted. I actually have deleted the mobile app on my phone because I can’t stand the fighting going on on my feed right now. (I don’t know many people who voted for Trump, just observing comment wars started by friends-of-friends.) Would more “diverse” targeted ads and opinions have swayed my vote or those of my Facebook friends who didn’t vote/went third party? I highly doubt it. Does anyone do more than scroll past ads, anyway? I get the frustration with the complacency the media had about Hillary winning, but I’m not really sure why anyone would want their social media feeds to be full of any more disagreeing opinions than they already are (especially hate speech, which seems to follow us women/minorities as soon as we open our mouths).

    As someone who voted for Hillary and a member of multiple groups targeted by Trump and his cronies, I don’t really see it as my responsibility to “educate” the people who made this happen. My main job is to protect myself, and right now that means not engaging with people who prioritized some dim view of possible economic/White supremacist prosperity over my livelihood and rights. I’ve literally never found it to be the case that engaging in an Internet comment battle actually changes someone’s mind. I’m not sure what the solution is other than canvassing more (which I didn’t have the time/resources to do as a full-time student).

  • Adardame

    My extended family is red and my husband’s family is mostly blue. I live in a red state. So, I get both parties in my facebook feed.

    I’m pretty sure all the agendas offered by various parties are going to cause us grief later. What I want out of a president is to not upset my life too much and to be a good role model. I feel the current installment is falling short of the latter. I hope he manages the former.