Many people agree that Facebook is a terrifying echo-chamber in which people affirm and perpetuate their own beliefs because that’s all they see via the Facebook filter bubble. What has been up for debate is whether this environment is created by Facebook’s filtering algorithms or by your own filtering done through your selection of friends.
This is all particularly important considering that 30 percent of U.S. get their news from Facebook.
Facebook conducted a study of 10 million users which showed that your selection of friends holds more sway than filtering algorithms when it comes to seeing news from opposing political viewpoints.
Facebook claims that they are doing very little to sort out of your News Feed news that you don’t agree with politically.
Facebook studied millions of its most political users and determined that while its algorithm tweaks what you see most prominently in your feed, you’re the one really limiting how much news and opinion you take in from people of different political viewpoints.
In an effort to explore how people consume news shared by friends of different ideological leanings, Facebook’s researchers pored over millions of URLs shared by its U.S.-based users who identify themselves in their profiles as politically liberal or conservative. The goal was to shed more light on how we consume information from our ever-growing, technologically enhanced tangles of social connections.
The study found that Facebook’s News Feed algorithm only slightly decreases users’ exposure to news shared by those with opposing viewpoints.
“In the end, we find individual choices, both in terms of who they choose to be friends with and what they select, matters more than the effect of algorithmic sorting,” research scientist, Eytan Bakshy, said.
The work comes more than three years after Eytan Bakshy and other researchers concluded that while you’re more likely to look at and share information with your closest connections, most of the information you get on Facebook stems from the web of people you’re weakly connected to—refuting the idea that online social networks create “filter bubbles” limiting what we see to what we want to see.
However, Eytan Bakshy said, the previous research, published in 2012, didn’t directly measure the extent to which you’re exposed to information from people whose ideological viewpoints are opposite from yours.
In an effort to sort that out, researchers looked at anonymized data for 10.1 million Facebook users who define themselves as liberal or conservative, and seven million URLs for news stories shared on Facebook from July 7 to January 7. After using software to identify URLs that consisted of “hard” news stories (pieces focused on topics like national news and politics) that were shared by a minimum of 20 users who had a listed political affiliation, researchers labeled each story as being aligned with liberal, neutral, or conservative ideologies, depending on the average political leaning of those who shared the stories.
Researchers found that 24 percent of the “hard” stories that liberal Facebook users’ friends shared were aligned with conservative users, while 35 percent of the “hard” stories that conservative Facebook users’ friends shared were aligned with liberal users—an average of 29.5 percent exposure, overall, to content from the other side of the political spectrum.
The researchers also looked at the impact of Facebook’s News Feed ranking algorithm on the kind of news you see. Eytan Bakshy says that overall, the algorithm reduces users’ exposure to content from friends who have opposing viewpoints by less than 1 percentage point—from 29.5 percent to 28.9 percent.
And when it came down to what users ended up actually reading, researchers report that conservatives were 17 percent less likely to click on liberally aligned articles than other “hard” stories in their news feeds, while liberals were 6 percent less likely to click on conservatively aligned articles presented to them.
Whether or not Facebook’s algorithm is what is responsible for much of the polarization happening today, I think many people would still agree that Facebook should not be filtering our news at all.