The Facebook echo chamber: Ten years of a one-sided news feed

David Gilbert looks at whether Facebook's news feed is promoting diversity and debate or preventing it

Were you surprised by the recent general election results? Did the Brexit vote take you by surprise? Do you think that Donald Trump is certain to win the US presidential election in two months time? If so, then you may be suffering from the effects of the social media echo chamber.

Facebook’s news feed, the central hub of everything that the service’s 1.7 billion users do on the social network, turned 10 this week. Prior to its launch, Facebook was just a series of profile pages, and to find out what everyone else was doing, you have to virtually stalk them by visiting each individual page.

Initially the launch of news feed was greeted with vitriol and hatred. A group called “I hate news feed” became the number one group on the site with over a million subscribers. The team that created news feed even deliberated about whether or not to just turn it off, despite having spent nine months developing the feature.

Zuckerberg responded with a post called “Calm down. Breathe. We hear you.” — clearly irked at the anger being directed at his new service.

Despite the user reaction, news feed survived, and 10 years later is seen as one of the most pivotal and influential moves the company has ever made. Zuckerberg this week took time to mark the anniversary by sharing “some thoughts on the idea of a social feed and how it’s changed the way we see the world.”

According to Zuck, the news feed is “the most diverse form of media” that has ever existed, pointing to the fact that before the internet people typically got their news from a single source, a particular newspaper or TV station. Thanks to social media “more people are getting exposed to a larger and more diverse set of opinions” according to Facebook’s CEO.

While admitting that the news feed still has problems, in particular dealing with fake news stories and the perceived bias of its algorithms, Zuckerberg believes that “by giving people access to more information and helping promote diversity and a plurality of opinions, we can build stronger communities.”

The problem is that by automatically filtering the news feed to the tastes of each individual, Facebook is creating a bubble in which people are happy to remain.

A study carried out last year, entitled “The spreading of misinformation online” found that by allowing users to filter out information they don’t like, Facebook and other social networks were facilitating the creation of echo chambers where people were no longer challenged by dissenting voices.

This is something Facebook has conspicuously increased in recent months. In June the company, worried that you might be getting too much content from professional publications, tweaked the news feed algorithm to make sure you heard more of your friends opinions. Considering that Facebook is a virtual representations of your real world friendships, it is hardly surprising to hear that we surround ourselves with people of similar ideals and beliefs.

The result is that in the lead up to critical events in the real world, such as the vote for the UK to leave the EU, many people were convinced that the Remain side would win an overwhelming majority because all the status updates they saw on Facebook or Twitter were from people with similar viewpoints.

The study claims that this echo chamber effect can “foster confusion about causation, and thus encourage speculation, rumours and mistrust” — effects seen in recent high profile political votes and likely to be seen again come November 8 and the US presidential election.

Facebook has of course conducted its own study which comes to an entirely different set of conclusions. “While News Feed surfaces content that is slightly more aligned with an individual’s own ideology (based on that person’s actions on Facebook), who they friend and what content they click on are more consequential than the News Feed ranking in terms of how much diverse content they encounter,” the Exposure to Diverse Information on Facebook report states.

For Facebook this echo chamber is a positive from a commercial point of view too as people are happy to remain on the site longer if they are surrounded by views echoing their own. The longer people scroll through their feed, the more ads they see, the more money Facebook generates. And it’s working, Facebook’s revenues grew 63 percent year-on-year in the second quarter of 2016, with ads alone generating over $6 billion in that three month period.

This however does not seem to correlate with what many people are reporting in real life, and considering just how popular Facebook is today, the impact of this "filter bubble" is real. Unless Zuckerberg and his team take steps to address it, Facebook could end up creating billions of individual news feeds and the social network it claims to be.