Social media’s role in the news business is now a big story thanks to Gizmodo’s accusation that Facebook contractors had introduced a liberal bias into picking which stories appear in the site’s trending section on everyone’s Facebook page. CEO Mark Zuckerberg said that the company, so-far, hasn’t found evidence to support that accusation but promised a thorough investigation and, on Wednesday, convened a meeting with conservative pundits to hear their concerns and, as Zuckerberg wrote after the meeting, assure them that “Facebook is a platform for all ideas” and that “it doesn’t make sense for our mission or our business to suppress political content or prevent anyone from seeing what matters most to them.”
To me, the “matters most to them” is somewhat problematic. My concern is less about whether Facebook’s algorithms or human curators are biased and more about how Facebook and other social media platforms encourage people to live in a news bubble. Even if there is no overall bias, there is no question that both Facebook’s and Twitter’s algorithms, along with the people we tend to friend and follow, encourage people to read news, information and comments and interact with people who tend to reinforce their views. I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s Facebook friends and Twitter contacts tend to be people who share my interests, background and views on issues. It’s not 100% — there are some spirited debates among the people I interact with, but, for the most part, it’s a bit of an echo-chamber. On Twitter I’m more easily able to diversify who I follow, but Facebook’s model, which requires both parties to agree to be “friends,” makes it more difficult to engage in a diverse conversation. And even though it’s possible for anyone to access public pages from organizations, candidates and other public figures, I’m sure I’m not the only one who is reluctant to “like” pages of people or organizations that I don’t really like.
Social media didn’t invent echo chambers. The web has long made it very easy for people to go directly to sources that reinforce their biases but that’s also true with traditional media. Although it’s less the case now, America has a long tradition of partisan newspapers with a strong and obvious political bias. And today, we have at least two cable networks and plenty of radio stations that lean decidedly in one direction or another. I go out of my way to watch, listen to and read left and right leaning commentators and news reports along with the more mainstream press but it is very easy to simply consume media that reinforces your point of view, which can not only lead you towards biased opinions but, in some cases, distorted facts.
Mark Zuckerberg can’t solve this problem, but he can use his powerful platform to expose people – whether on the left, the right or center, to a more balanced diet of news, information and opinion.
Achieving fairness in trending topics is only part of the solution. A bigger challenge is to empower and encourage people to explore and listen to other people’s points of view and have respectful conversations — kind of like Zuckerberg and those conservative pundits did on Wednesday.