The tyranny of the social media filter bubble

Syria chemical attack Khan Sheikhoun
In this picture taken on Tuesday April 4, 2017, Syrian man Abdul-Hamid Alyousef, 29, carries his twin babies who were killed during the suspected chemical weapons attack, in Khan Sheikhoun town, in the northern province of Idlib, Syria. Alyousef also lost his wife, two brothers, nephews and many other family members in the attack that claimed scores of his relatives. The death toll from a suspected chemical attack on a northern Syrian town rose to 72 on Wednesday as activists and rescue workers found more terrified survivors hiding in shelters near the site of the harrowing assault, one of the deadliest in Syria’s civil war. (AP Photo/Alaa Alyousef)

Two days ago one of the worst crimes against humanity in recent years took place in Syria. The government of Bashar al-Assad carried out an aerial bombing on the town of Khan Sheikhun, targeting defenseless residents of the town with the sarin nerve agent. At least 70 people were killed—tormented to death—among them children.

Meanwhile, social media platforms didn’t think this would be something I should know about. Facebook insisted I should rather be following funny animal videos and other silly posts on pages I’ve liked (TBH, I don’t use the platform very much, and I’m happy about it). Twitter, on the other hand, fed me with a rich list of the latest tech news and innovations and some promotional tweets that I ignored as usual.

That’s very unsocial, I would say. Luckily for me, I don’t rely on social media trends and timelines as my main source of news. I scan websites and read through newsletters to know what’s going on in the world beyond my circle of interest. I’m a regular reader of Wired, TechCrunch and New York Times, but I also take care to read through the outlets that they criticize (and demonize sometimes). I like The Intercept, but I also know that its writers have their own set of biases.

When I read a post from The Electronic Frontier Foundation about the erosion of user privacy, I also take the time to read the other side of the story before making a judgement.

Even when using Twitter (my most active social media account), I constantly tweak my settings to see what’s trending elsewhere.

Unfortunately, the same can’t be said about average users. According to research, internet users are increasingly inclined to get their news from social media platforms and accept whatever Facebook and Twitter presents as real news. And those platforms are inclined to show people only what they want to see—which isn’t necessarily what they should see.

Twitter’s default “tailored trend,” which it describes as a “unique way to get closer to what you care about,” will only show you what’s being discussed in your vicinity and people you follow. Fortunately, changing it is not very hard. Facebook also has a trending topic, but for strange reasons it doesn’t appear in all countries and for all accounts, and it’s mechanics are rather obscure.

I became aware of the tragedy unfolding in Syria through other sources. I scrolled frantically through both my Facebook and Twitter feeds to, but sadly nothing related showed up.

I figured that other people within my follower base might be facing the same situation, so I decided to break from the norm and tweet about the humanitarian crisis in Syria. The result—the tweet didn’t get nearly as many impressions as my other tweets get, and even less engagements. So I just gave up on social media and started reaching out to people through other channels—Slack, email, chat, phone…

A Syria video finally showed up on my feed two days later. But it was too little too late, and the facts were misrepresented (the overall death toll of the conflict was slashed by half).

I know that I am largely to blame for this. I’ve never manifested any kind of behavior for Facebook or Twitter to decide that it should show me news related to Syria. I don’t follow many people outside of the tech bubble and I don’t post too often about human rights, even though I care about it very much. Accordingly, the friend and follow suggestions I receive are also directed toward making the boundaries of my content and interactions more clearcut and less flexible.

This is just the latest manifestation of the disaster that the social media filter bubble has become. The same tools that were supposed to break through the barriers of censorship are effectively becoming the biggest barriers themselves, creating a polarized world where no one sees nor tolerates anything beyond their own line of thoughts.

What can you do about it? For one thing, until the relevant companies decide to take their responsibilities seriously, take control of the information you ingest. Don’t let your social media platforms decide for you. Follow people and like pages that represent views opposing yours.

Read your news directly from websites and newspapers. Watch the prime time. Even though on older mediums deprive you to some extent of the control you have over content, at least they’re more diversified than what your narrowly targeted social media feed delivers.

And by all means, spread the word and raise awareness on critical issues that do not necessarily coincide with your interests and preferences, even if they’re taking place thousands of miles away.

With great power comes great responsibility. Technology has revolutionized communications and media. It is our responsibility to use it to help prevent tragedies, not to become careless about them.

Until we take that responsibility seriously, innocent people who need our help will suffer.


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