In the filter bubble: How algorithms customise our access to information
by Stefani Mans
‘Marc Zuckerberg promises to do more about the circulation of fake news on Facebook’
Dutch news website nu.nl said on 13 November 2016.
This isn’t the first time Facebook has been criticized lately. The social media network has been under fire for its new untransparent algorithm that determines which information is being prioritized in the user’s timeline. This algorithm doesn’t only decide who’s baby pictures show up in your timeline, but also what kind of news items you get to see.
The algorithm prioritizes content that fits in with your interests and already existing world view, which is based on the user profile Facebook has created of you by analyzing your posts, reactions, likes, personal information, connections, behavior on the site itself, and whichever info they can gather from tracking cookies.
In the podcast ‘Aflevering 105: Facebook en president Trump’ by NUtech, Kraan and Van Hoek warn that this can create a filter bubble because Facebook is only going
to show you news that reaffirms- or fits into your established world view.
A user leans towards voting for Trump in the 2016 U.S. presidential election; he likes a couple of positive news items about him on Facebook. Now, suddenly, he only gets to see news items that are positive about Trump and negative about Hillary Clinton – one of the other candidates – or doesn’t receive any news about Clinton at all anymore. This has lead to speculation about the potential effects this form of news prioritization has had on the outcome of the elections, especially in combination with the high quantity of fake news articles that have circulated.
Fake news articles
Marc Zuckerberg states that Facebook has not influenced the outcome of the elections, and the idea that fake news on the social network has influenced the elections sounds ludicrous to him (Hermans).
When asked about the circulation of fake news Zuckerberg states that 99% of the news on Facebook is real, that only one percent consists of fake news and hoaxes and these don’t originate from just one political side. According to him people are perfectly capable of determining whether a news report is fake or real (Hermans). This is a rather bold claim concerning we look at how much hoaxes are retweeted and reposted every time they emerge.
In their podcast, Kraan and Van Hoek explain that while most media companies and news organizations do their own fact- and source-checking – since they are responsible for the authenticity of their content, and have to obey to media laws – Facebook doesn’t.
The social network does not view itself as a media company as such and therefore does not feel the responsibility to vigorously check the authenticity of the content because this isn’t their core business. Yet, while Facebook does not view or identify itself as a media company and is not an official news organization, a 2015 Pew research survey reveals that 62% of U.S. adults get their news from social media sites like Facebook (Mitchell & Holcomb).
As a result of this emerging trend social media platforms have invested in optimisation of their streaming services and also have created special publishing tools with user friendly features. Digital companies have become indispensable as distributors and intermediaries between content and consumers because they enable content publishers to more efficiently reach their target audience. In turn the digital platforms benefit from extended user engagement (Mitchell & Holcomb).
The New York Times and Washington Post are already avid users of Facebook’s new publishing tool ‘instant articles’. An Instant Article is an HTML5-document that optimized for mobile devices because it load very quickly and therefore has a lot of commercial potential. Publishers can introduce their own advertisers or sell via Facebook which will cost them 30% of the revenue. Instant Articles enables Facebook to get even more data about its users which can be used for user profiling (Frankwatching).
Now publishers create content that is specially geared for digital production. Digital companies are now the most important intermediaries between content and consumer.
“Increasingly, the data suggest that the impact these technology companies are having on the business of journalism goes far beyond the financial side, to the very core elements of the news industry itself” (Mitchell & Holcomb).
Algorithms and prioritisation
Facebook has been under fire for the algorithm that decides which content on our timeline is prioritised. However, is prioritisation of news really a new practice or has this practice been around for much longer?
Zuckerberg rightly states that newspapers have always prioritised certain news above other news by selecting and ordering it. This doesn’t take away from the growing influence digital companies have on the way news is produced and consumed. “Over time, technology companies like Facebook and Apple have become an integral, if not dominant player in most of these arenas, supplanting the choices and aims of news outlets with their own choices and goals” (Michell & Holcomb).
Facebook is not the only company to jump on the ‘algorithm bandwagon’; in May messaging app Snapchat also announced that they will begin using an algorithm for news story selections.
Facebook, for one, sees these self-learning systems as a logical progression of existing and emerging technology. However, if these algorithms and self-learning systems get to decide – increasingly more autonomous – which information and news items are accessible to us, they effectively influence the way we view the world. It’s important to keep track of whose interests they have at heart.
Skilled IT professionals are needed to create the advanced algorithms and self learning systems Facebook and Apple use to stay dominant players in the field of online news distribution. However IT professionals who can offer the level of expertise to create correct algorithms are difficult to find. The Dutch market for IT-specialists has “dried up.” This has become a huge challenge for IT-companies. Esti makes a contribution to the solution by recruiting international IT-specialists to the Netherlands. You might say that we excel in this field. When others promise, we deliver!