Facebook aims to be a lot of things. The social media company is slowly shifting from being a simple platform used to engage family and friends to a news and entertainment juggernaut, a virtual-reality pioneer, and so much more. Now that Facebook has been adopted by more than just the millennial generation, in many ways it’s turning into a divisive player and resembling media companies like FOX News, MSNBC, and for some people, a horrific opinion-dump akin to Reddit’s r/forwardsfromgrandma. The biggest concern about all of this is that people aren’t willing to think about opposing viewpoints. Instead, they’re self-selecting content that reflects their own opinions, which shows up on their page.
In fact, Facebook may overtake some of our traditional media stalwarts as America’s premiere echo chamber, and there’s science to back it up. A study led by Facebook data scientists and published in Science all but confirms it, explaining how the way we use Facebook (by having only things that we ‘like’ pushed into our newsfeeds, for example) effectively creates an echo chamber of our own that does nothing but reinforce existing viewpoints, and shuts out all others.
It’s akin to having cable with only one news channel, and that channel is FOX News, MSNBC, or another program of choice.
“The media that individuals consume on Facebook depends not only on what their friends share, but also on how the News Feed ranking algorithm sorts these articles, and what individuals choose to read,” the study says. “We conclusively establish that on average in the context of Facebook, individual choices, more than algorithms, limit exposure to attitude-challenging content.”
One other important thing is that the study also says this sort of environment leads to less political engagement, something that’s incredibly important to a healthy democracy. By disengaging users from the political sphere offline, and creating a polarizing environment online, Facebook has come under some heavy criticism. But it’s hard to imagine that Zuckerberg envisioned this sort of consequence in his Harvard dorm room.
Facebook has also fired back. In a report from The New York Times, Facebook data scientists focused on the fact that users actually are exposed to different opinions, scoffing at the notion that the platform has become nothing more than an enclosure for one’s personal opinions.
“This is the first time we’ve been able to quantify these effects,” Eytan Bakshy, a data scientist at Facebook, told The New York Times. “You would think that if there was an echo chamber, you would not be exposed to any conflicting information,” he added, “but that’s not the case here.”
Just as many people stick to a few media sources that they like, be it cable news networks or certain newspapers and magazines, people with certain views may end up clinging to sites that continuously reinforce their own opinions while encouraging them not to take any action. Instead of becoming more politically engaged — working with a political party, signing petitions, or joining protests — users become more interested in keeping themselves entertained. Even in the case when something that conflicts with your own views does comes across your Twitter or Facebook feed, people are more apt to attack it, post flame-baiting comments, or troll than to actually approach the content with an open mind.
While we can’t overlook the potential issues with the study, it’s hard to ignore what could be happening in the real world if the echo chamber is, in fact, real. The most important detail about that would be the fact that people are becoming less and less politically active, which could mean that fewer voters show up at the polls and a lower number of people are willing to do any kind of campaigning.
Why would they, when they can just bicker back and forth in Facebook comments? Then again, there are some people who would rather not have their opinions set in stone online, able to be referenced in the future and used against them. For those folks, does it basically mean shutting up?
There will surely be further studies into how social media behavior affects political views, but with this Facebook study, we have to admit that the next generation of voters are finding their niche online rather than from talking heads on cable news. In some respects, social media may be better than the alternative, as it at least facilitates discussion.
Follow Sam on Twitter @Sliceofginger