Facebook has released the results of a new study that essentially shows people are responsible for the diversity of opinion they see – or don’t see – in their Newsfeed.
The results are staggeringly unsurprising in that they show that on a self-selecting network the news and opinions you’re exposed to there are going to be more or less in line with your own. There may be some crossover from the other side of the political divide, but since the study shows only 23%, of average, of people’s friends claim opposing ideology there’s likely not to be much of that. More than that, the Newsfeed is heavily influenced by what the individual person engages with. So if you are constantly Liking things because you agree with them, you’ll see more from the person you agree with. If you’re constantly commenting about how someone is so wrong, you’re setting yourself up for more from that person.
Zeynep Tufekci has an excellent piece on how the presentation of the study’s results takes pains to play down the role the Newsfeed algorithm plays while playing up the self-selection component. And she highlights how things differ for liberals and conservatives and some very fundamental issues with the study make skewed (at least somewhat) results almost inevitable.
When you combine this with the recent study showing many people don’t know there even *is* an algorithm filtering what they see and you can see how Facebook cannot wash its hands of the role it plays in displaying news and other updates. It may not be as overt as the experiment that was uncovered last year, but every day it’s making a decision as to what is and isn’t shown. They may say they don’t make editorial decisions like a news outlet would, but the human programmers building the algorithm are not off the hook.
So what you have is a study that says “the algorithm isn’t a factor” but when the entire ecosystem operates within the confines of the algorithm then that argument loses a lot of validity. It’s the equivalent of saying “we all stay rooted to the ground because we’re heavy and gravity isn’t a factor” while ignoring that gravity is what makes things heavy.