Saturday 25 March 2017

Steve Dempsey: 'Trust me, I'm an algorithm.' Presenting polarised opinion on social media

'A new experiment from the Wall Street Journal aims to show just how wide the gap is between different political persuasions on Facebook. Blue Feed Red Feed presents current stories about American politics from the most conservative-aligned and liberal-aligned sources side by side.' Stock photo: Getty
'A new experiment from the Wall Street Journal aims to show just how wide the gap is between different political persuasions on Facebook. Blue Feed Red Feed presents current stories about American politics from the most conservative-aligned and liberal-aligned sources side by side.' Stock photo: Getty
Steve Dempsey

Steve Dempsey

Facebook found itself in hot water recently over allegations of editorial bias. The curators of its Trending Topics feature were reportedly suppressing news from conservative media outlets. The social network responded with a charm offensive to right-wingers and a promise to "minimise risks where human judgment is involved".

Social media plays an increasingly important role in shaping people's perceptions of the world - especially when it comes to topics like politics, where polarised opinions abound. And while traditional media outlets wear their editorial biases on their sleeve, social media can be less transparent.

Many show stories to users decided by an algorithm that's designed to keep them on-site for longer. The results? Less exposure to different opinions, entrenchment of ideals and confirmation bias. It's not a list that traditional media outlets would be proud of.

A new experiment from the Wall Street Journal aims to show just how wide the gap is between different political persuasions on Facebook. Blue Feed Red Feed presents current stories about American politics from the most conservative-aligned and liberal-aligned sources side by side. These sources were previously uncovered by Facebook itself, in a research paper snappily entitled 'Replication Data for: Exposure to Ideologically Diverse News and Opinion on Facebook'.

"Everyone thinks that we all see the same sort of thing on Facebook, while in reality everyone's feed is unique," says Jon Keegan, visual correspondent with the Wall Street Journal.

"I really wanted to see what sources were most popular with liberals and conservatives on Facebook - yet only Facebook can truly provide this data. When I saw Facebook's study and their replication data that included a list of the top 500 sources from their study, along with information about which groups aligned with each source, I knew I could build this side-by-side view for the first time."

These red and blue feeds aren't approximations of real news feeds as seen by liberals or conservatives. Nonetheless, Keegan was intrigued by how much the feeds differed.

"When I had my first prototype of this working, it immediately showed this really stark contrast," he says. "My editor and I quickly realised that the most interesting view of this is based around topics in the news. For example, when Bruce Springsteen decided to boycott performances in North Carolina to protest the state's transgender bathroom bill, the liberal side cheered him as a hero, while conservatives attacked him for his politics."

Keegan is keen to continue the project throughout the election and beyond, into other areas. "We'll be adding new topics throughout the rest of the election season in the US," he says. "And I could totally imagine seeing this idea used for science, sports, religion or any other topic that had passionate and potentially polarised communities. You don't want to build something just to enrage people, or to gawk at the other side - that's where you have to be careful."

The Wall Street Journal's Blue Feed Red Feed project illustrates how the media has an important role to play in this age of algorithmically-driven content discovery.

"The media landscape is changing rapidly," says Keegan, "and a lot of it is intentionally designed to appear to be 'magic' to users - opaque in its design. As we've seen with Facebook's Trending Topics controversy, people do care about how this information gets to their feed, and many have called for greater transparency, which is good for everyone.

"If journalists can access data about how users are consuming and sharing information on these platforms, I think we can help the public better understand these rapidly growing businesses and the workings of this ever-changing media landscape."

Last year, the Pew Research Centre found that 61pc of American 18- to 34-year-olds now consume political news from Facebook in any given week. And the Financial Times reported that Facebook's 'voter megaphone' feature could well be a deciding factor in the UK's EU referendum on June 23. With this much influence, it's important that someone is interrogating what social channels show their users and exposing the gaps in the feed.

Sure, traditional media outlets have become overly reliant on social networks to deliver audiences. But there's an opportunity for news publishers to become trusted advisors who help us make sense of the world as mediated by social media.

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