Social media site and save file for your older relatives’ favorite inspirational quotes, Facebook is changing the way it finds and displays news stories. The update is a response to the rampant amount of fake news that the site regularly displays in its Trending section and the news “bubble” that was created by allowing users to personalize the news they saw.
The social media bubble is a phenomenon that frequently occurs on sites that are designed to show users what they like. If you’re a Republican and all of your friends are Republicans, you will be likely to see only positive stories about Republicans and negative stories about Democrats.
Think about it: the site learns what you want to see, what you will click on, and gives you more of that because those things will keep you on the site longer. You’ll scroll down farther, see another ad and the site makes a little more money.
So bubbles are a perfectly natural occurrence in personalized news feeds, and they might not be dangerous if we were talking about iPhone versus Android news or cat versus dog news. It’s the fact that this bubble is a polarizing force in our hyper-polarized political climate that is worrying.
On top of the selection bias for news stories, another huge problem for Facebook is the rampant spread of fake news. Sites whose purpose is to generate articles that agree with neo-Nazi, sexist or racist opinions take advantage of the bubble to deliver themselves to users. They tell blatant lies about events and statistics to prove what the reader wants to hear.
The number of fake news sites is staggering. French newspaper Le Monde created a fact-checking product that included data from 600 fake news sites. Sadly, this tool was designed with the French-speaking world in mind. We’ll have to wait for someone to design something similar for English.
Another hurdle any crackdown on fake news will need to address: President Donald Trump.
Similar to many fake news sites, Trump rarely includes sources for his information (other than “I knew a guy who…”), which wouldn’t fly in any academic essay but is apparently fine for the president of the United States.
In the past, Trump has spread falsehoods such as his belief that vaccines cause autism. Despite being told that doctors agree that there is no connection between vaccines and autism, Trump refuses to change his opinion.
This closed-mindedness is at the heart of the fake news phenomenon and the social media bubble. We all have to make a conscious decision to move beyond our own views, to take five minutes to read something that explains the argument of the other side(s).
Reading something written by someone who disagrees with you won’t magically brainwash you into believing as they do. You might see a convincing argument, but it is your decision to change your beliefs based on new information or facts you hadn’t considered.
Alternatively, if you are not convinced, reading the argument of people who disagree with you empowers you to more successfully defend your own view.
Either way, our society is made better when we listen to each other.