We have more agency than we think when it comes to choosing what we click online, a new study suggests. But Facebook still has a lot of power to influence us.
If you were among those who were surprised at the results of the UK general election of 2015, you may be tempted to blame the internet for surrounding you with people who tell you what you want to hear. Whether it’s by choice or design, the internet tends to create a bubble around us, where most people have the same opinions as we do. This may be comfortable, but the problem is that life in the bubble doesn’t necessarily reflect the view of the world at large.
It’s tempting to blame technology for this phenomenon: “If you take all of these [online] filters together, you take all these algorithms, you get what I call a filter bubble. Your filter bubble is your own personal, unique universe of information that you live in online,” Eli Pariser, co-founder of Upworthy and author of The Filter Bubble, explained in a TED talk.
This effect is boosted by the fact that the internet’s targeting algorithms are pretty good at working out what we want to see – whether it is advertising, search engine hits or Facebook posts. On one hand, this is useful as it helps us sort through a vast sea of content to find things we like. However it also means we come into contact with a narrow conception of public opinion, because we only hear the opinions we agree with.
So it was perhaps surprising when Facebook issued a study which showed that we’re probably creating a lot of this effect ourselves. The study, which has been peer-reviewed and published in respected journal Science, found evidence that the filter bubble may be a myth:
“We conclusively establish that on average in the context of Facebook, individual choices more than algorithms limit exposure to attitude-challenging content,” the three authors, Eytan Bakshy, Solomon Messing and Lada Adamic, wrote in Science. “Our work suggests that the power to expose oneself to perspectives from the other side in social media lies first and foremost with individuals.”.
The study found that people with socially conservative views tend to share and click mostly on links that tally with their views, and so do people with liberal views. But because most of us have at least some friends or family whose views differ from our own, we have at least some exposure to opposing views: 24% to 35% of news content shared by our friends are things that we ourselves won’t necessarily agree with. And we do click on those links: 24.9% of the articles people click on promote views which oppose their own.
Considering how we’re increasingly getting most of our news via social media channels such as Facebook, studies like these are important. The power of Facebook to influence behaviour has already been established: their scientists proved they could affect people’s moods by subtly controlling their feeds, for example. Facebook has used this power philanthropically as well, such as when they encourage people to donate to charities following natural disasters. During the US election in 2012, Facebook promoted voting in the feeds of 1.9 million users, and found a “statistically significant” increase in how much attention users paid to government news as a result. Significantly, Facebook claimed to have boosted voter turnout by 3% through its experiment, according to a report from Mother Jones.
The good news is that we’re not entirely doomed to live in a world as created by the all-powerful Facebook algorithm: the internet is not conspiring to create an internet experience that reflects only what we want to see. “Our work suggests that individuals are exposed to more cross-cutting discourse in social media than they would be under the digital reality envisioned by some,“ read the study. “Compared to algorithmic ranking, individuals’ choices about what to consume had a stronger effect.”. But as the voting experiment proves, we can certainly be influenced by suggestions on social media. While we ultimately decide for ourselves what to do, Facebook needs to remember it still has a lot of power.
Harvesting social media is vital to your marketing strategy. Upping your social listening efforts could help you tap into crucial conversation about your brand. Find out more about social listening in this blog post!