Is Facebook Biased?

Over the last weekend, the allegation that Facebook in its “trending” news stories section is biased against conservative stories went viral. Facebook immediately refuted the contention that it was biased. And, truthfully many argued, who get their news from the “trending” section of Facebook? Apparently, large numbers of people.

How content is consumed has changed dramatically. I used to depict this in my class via two slides:

Fig 01 Fig 02

Until two decades ago, the editors were most powerful. In the face of space limitations, it was editors who decided what news would be printed, what would be broadcast when on radio and television, which books would be published, what music would be released, and what would be included in say, for example, the Encyclopedia Britannica. With traditional media, consumers were at the mercy of editors. The editors were the taste makers and had a chokehold with respect to the content that was on offer.

Once content went digital, along came Google and YouTube to disrupt the traditional media model in a fundamental way. Now, the consumer, was in charge of what to consume and when. It empowered the consumer at the expense of the editor. This empowerment of the consumer and democratization of control is the basis of many models that have recently captured our imagination including Spotify, Lulu, and Wikipedia.

Social media moves the game to another frame. Here, the consumer feels they are in charge but increasingly the consumption of content is influenced or determined by their “friends”.

News, videos, and music are increasingly being consumed off Facebook and Twitter feeds. What gets shown on the feed, is determined by an algorithm and the post of friends. Research demonstrates that in the USA, liberals are more likely than conservatives to “unfriend” people based on their political views, while conservatives are less exposed to diverse viewpoints. Regardless, people are more likely to be friends with those with similar political views, which in turn, further biases what they are exposed to. In addition, editors of traditional media now complain that much of what gets clicked on these websites or goes viral is not hard news but the fluffy stuff. As a result, we increasingly suffer from tunnel vision with the discovery portion being crowded out.

With respect to advertising and trending topics, the algorithm pushes that content which you are most likely to click and also delivers the highest revenue for the social media site. It learns your tastes over time to improve the click rate. For example, if you search for a flight to Dubrovnik, the advertisements on Facebook and Twitter seem to be mysteriously full of hotel recommendations in Dubrovnik. This is the defence that Facebook countered with, saying the algorithm is not biased to a political philosophy, but only to increasing the click rate.

As social media gets more integrated with content consumption, Facebook will become a more powerful intermediary. Think of a scenario. Today, watching television is such a solitary experience for most people. You come home and sit alone in front of the TV.  Contrast this with my experience when television was introduced in India. I remember as a kid, one family in the building having a TV which came on in the evening. It broadcast only one black and white channel. All of the 20 kids in the building gathered five minutes before and crowded the living room where the TV occupied the pride of place. The rest of the evening was great fun as consuming television content was a social experience, much to the dismay of the poor television owner. As societies become increasingly fragmented, we have lost that social aspect.

Now assume that you use Facebook or Twitter to log into the web enabled TV. Before you decide what to watch, you get to observe how many of your friends or followers are watching which show. Would it not be much more fun to watch a show that many of your friends have switched on to and making comments which are streaming along the side of the television? Suddenly, you are in a virtual room filled with your friends, having an animated conversation while watching TV. Only, as yet, you cannot share the wine and food across the internet.

While the Internet provides a very large window to the world, you can subconsciously and actively, choose to either narrow or broaden what you are exposed to.



Magic Dust

They told me unbox it, I said #surething :  🙂

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Rajesh K Varma says:

    Insightful article. Editors used to be so powerful be it print, radio or tv. They would have changed their style after seeing and using the social media .


  2. Piyush says:

    Social watching has a serious potential downside of entrenching people’s mind and views, as birds of a feather end up consuming together. Typically, friends share ideaoligies and views and hence higher the inter-dependency, higher the parochialism


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