The Times—they are a-changin’. Today, more people choose to go online to get their news fill than pick up a paper. Nearly 75 percent of people surveyed by the Pew Internet and American Life Project got their news from email or social networking sites. The print industry has long been put on life support as news gets more and more social; now you not only read a story, but share its link with friends by email or comment on it through Facebook and Twitter feeds. In a hyperlinked world, news is no longer a one-way phenomenon, it is circular. Everyone is creating, sharing, and distributing new content online and while this is mostly convenient and expedient, it can also create false notions about the comprehensiveness of our news consumption.
While it seems as if news-aggregating sites and social media tools like Facebook will present the best of the news in the world to us, these services pose a very real concern that we can become trapped in a cycle of news that maps very closely onto the beliefs of only our social and cultural groups.
Good for you if you read several newspapers online, clicking through every section, but as Pew’s study reveals (and many of us will recall from our own online behavior) people tend to gravitate toward only a handful of links: the ones most emailed, or most discussed. Online news websites triumphantly feature countdowns of these most popular stories, which eventually morph into self-perpetuating cycles of popular opinion.
Recent studies of online users also reveal that we systematically choose to read only that which we already agree with. For users who get their online news solely from social media sites, this self-reassuring spiral is even more pronounced. On Facebook, our friends turn into human filters. Most people read what their friends read, share these links, write notes and comments on debates within a closed group of like-minded individuals. As the information overload grows, individuals begin to rely more on their social groups and trusted sources, to sift through the clutter of news. We choose a few personal “news curators”—people we follow on Twitter or whose feeds we subscribe to on Facebook— and trust them to handpick the news pieces most relevant to us.
Social media is good at creating bubbles around us—that’s part of their charm. They help us to customize every dimension of our lives through an endless series of likes. But algorithms like the Facebook news feed expose us to a precariously small range of views. A recent study released by Facebook at its f8 developer conference in 2011 confirms that users are more likely to click on news links from friends they were close to. It’s great to use Facebook to filter through our personal and commercial interests. But when this filter extends to our intellectual life, it can trap us in an online echo chamber by gradually minimizing our interaction with opposing thoughts and cutting off our engagement with the broader world.
Sure, even in real life people can choose to flip channels or read only sections of a newspaper, but at least the choice here is intentional. The concern online is that most people do not understand or pay attention to the increased filtering of our worlds by computer algorithms or our social circles. Google, for instance, stores users’ past preferences and turns up different search results for different people, even on the most recent news items. Websites like Twitter also make suggestions about whom to follow based on personalized data such as a user’s existing contacts. The Twitter trending topics you see vary based on your location. Not just social media, even newspaper websites like The New York Times or Washington Post present news search results in order of relevance to us and make it easier to settle into our e-comfort zones.
Even students at Harvard, with all its emphasis on diversity, aren’t immune to default social and intellectual collusion. One of the first items that pops up on my Facebook feed is the Washington Post Social Reader. I am told that 87 of my friends within the Harvard network have used it just last month, sharing, and reading a limited collection of all the news that’s fit to publish. I’ve been tempted by its convenience but am wary of the large number of people who like the same few stories.
In a hyper-networked world, there’s no simple solution to the slight or sometimes large biases and filters that may creep into our intellectual life. Perhaps it may help to actively seek out media sources that you disagree with. I’m personally not sure if I can handle constant updates from both Instapundit and Daily Kos in the same feed, but I’ll try scrolling through all sections of an entire newspaper for a start.
Shreya Maheshwari ’12 is an economics concentrator living in Lowell House.