Facebook echo chambers divisive

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Ted Richards, a 24-year-old BYU political science student, gets his news from podcasts. He said he makes sure to get one from the center-left — NPR Politics — and one from the right — Ben Shapiro. Richards says his Facebook newsfeed is sprinkled with opinion pieces from all across the board, but none of the content interests or informs him.

“It may also be because of (my) philosophy emphasis. I don’t like reading boring news articles that much,” Richards said. “I’d rather hear about the implications of things than what CNN is just saying is happening.”

But Richards isn’t the norm. More millennials get political news from Facebook than from CNN, the second highest news contender, according to a 2014 Pew Research Center study. And the two weren’t even close — Facebook beat the network by 17 percent.

Facebook’s algorithm, EdgeRank, decides on individual newsfeeds and doesn’t show or claim to show a balanced spread of news content, as most news corporations do. Instead, it simply shows users what they want to see.

“Facebook wants you to like what you see when you log in,” said Adam Durfee, an adjunct communications professor at BYU and vice president of digital marketing and social strategy at Provo’s Wallaroo Media.

Facebook monitors each user’s engagement — what they like, click on, unfollow, comment on, share or even take longer to scroll past — and pushes more of it into their feed. This creates what Durfee called an echo chamber.

“You’re talking and all you’re hearing is the same voice back at you over and over again,” Durfee said. “We start to miss opposing viewpoints because we’ve created a system that does that.”

Durfee said this echo chamber effect played a large role in the November 2016 presidential election.

“There was a very, very strongly preconceived notion that Hillary Clinton would win that election,” Durfee said. “But the question becomes on that, was she going to win the election because everybody in your circle said she was going to win the election? That’s all you saw?”

He said he wonders whether supporters of Donald Trump shied away from posting their political opinions publicly for fear of ending up on the receiving end of social media hate.

Durfee said, for this reason, “social media’s not a very accurate representation of the world that we live in.”

(Zoe Woolf McGinn)

With Facebook holding the power to filter content and change what reality looks like for each user, some — like the fact-checkers at media education provider Poynter — have been asking if the social media giant has a moral responsibility to insert some opposing viewpoints for a more informed perspective.

For Durfee, he said he doesn’t see that coming.

“I just don’t think that Facebook is required or obligated in any way, shape or form to be the ethical police, to be the neutral police, to be the third party police,” Durfee said. “Facebook is a for-profit corporation whose goal in life is to make money. Where’s the money in policing ethics? Where’s the money in investing in cracking down on things? Where’s the money in educating your public?”

Facebook’s ethical duty clashes with the company’s goal of turning a profit for its investors and employees, Durfee said.

Colin Rivera, a Londoner who runs the English social media for the online booking company Hostelworld, thinks the burden falls on the backs of citizens to be informed, not on Facebook.

However, Rivera does have some ideas on what a happy medium could look like.

“It would be great if Facebook could just get a lot more specific with what you choose not to have in your Facebook,” Rivera said. “Instead of only surveying for reasons when users block or report a person, Facebook could start asking why users unfollow a person or an entity.”

Rivera has a unique vantage point regarding the election. He’s lived in both England and the U.S., and his parents come from Scotland and New York.

He thinks the echo chamber effect presents a political problem in Europe as well, but not in the same internally divisive way it does in America.

Rivera said he doesn’t see the stark division between the pro- and anti-Trump camps in England. Though he’s sure they exist, he said he didn’t meet a single Brit over the year-and-a-half U.S. election cycle who agreed with anything Trump said.

Yui Mok
People gather in Parliament Square as part of a national day of action in support of migrants in the UK, in London with the Houses of Parliament back right, Monday Feb. 20, 2017. (Associated Press)

“Almost all of Europe is pretty horrified,” Rivera said, noting the “massive protests” in London since the U.S. presidential election. “It’s part a lack of understanding, but it’s also partly just different sensibilities and different kinds of value structures, (which) has led to most of Europe not really agreeing with American Republican concepts as a whole.”

In England, both of the major parties have adopted what in America would qualify as liberal positions, Rivera said. Most of the British news outlets reflect the left-oriented system, so a lot of U.K. residents never see content reflecting the real and legitimate reasons so many Americans voted for Trump. They can’t understand it, and they partly have a nationwide echo chamber to blame, Rivera said.

Social media and public relations team leader at Wallaroo Media Dani Abbot said she knows what she would do to help ease the gritty international perception of America’s new president if she were working on his public relations team.

To start with, she said she would tighten the reins on President Trump’s social media, including approving tweets.

“The internet can really make or break you,” Abbot said. “That sounds so cheesy, but what you put out there is there forever … so you want to be smart.”

Bringing in a concept she learned in BYU’s public relations program, Abbot cited BP CEO and millionaire Tony Hayward’s infamous comment after the massive 2010 oil spill that polluted the Gulf of Mexico: “I’d like my life back.”

Abbot said the image of self-centered leaders is fuel for the flames during a public relations crisis, and she’d like to work on image with President Trump.

“I would kind of create an initiative with him as a person to start going forth with not being all about himself,” Abbot said. “You’re going to start focusing not on your numbers and who you are as a person and how you somehow won, and you’re going to start focusing on getting to work.”

See also “Two of Utah Legislature’s top tweeters talk social media tactics.”