Facebook users are more likely to get news that fits political beliefs but younger voters dont necessarily realize how much the echo chamber affects them
HBO host John Oliver achieved the destruction of Donald Trump on 29 February 2016. At least, according to the Daily Beast.
Fansided, a popular social news aggregator, dates Trumps destruction at 1 August while the Daily Good called it for 21 March. Salon found no fewer than 13 glorious times that Oliver had destroyed the real estate tycoon.
Sharp-eyed consumers of the news might note that it is impossible to, as the dictionary says, put an end to the existence of something more than a single time. But for #NeverTrump Facebook users who love any content they see as bringing Trump down a peg, the formulaic headline is indicative of the Facebook media landscape: the most shareable, clickable and likable content on the site aligns strongly with its readerships pre-existing biases, assumptions and political affiliation.
For millennials who have never known an election without Facebook, the political landscape of the social media network has massive implications for the upcoming contest between Hillary Clinton and Trump not least of which because of Facebooks outsized influence on their exposure to political news.
Six out of every 10 millennials (61%) get their political news on Facebook, according to a survey conducted by Pew Research Center, making the 1.7 billion-user social behemoth (which includes more than 200 million in the United States) the largest millennial marketplace for news and ideas in the world. But within Facebooks ecosystem exists a warren of walled gardens, intellectual biomes created by users whose interest in interacting with opposing political views and those who are them is nearly nonexistent.
Baby boomers are the most likely to see political content on Facebook that supports their own views, said Amy Mitchell, the director of journalism research at Pew Research Center. Thirty-one percent of baby boomers on Facebook who pay attention to political posts say the posts they see are mostly or always in line with their own views, higher than both Gen Xers and millennials.
But baby boomers are the least likely to get their political news from Facebook unlike millennials.
According to another Pew Research Center survey from 2014, consistent conservatives were twice as likely as the average Facebook user to say that posts about politics on Facebook were mostly or always in line with their own views, and that four in 10 consistent liberals say they have blocked or unfriended someone over political disagreements.
This creates what the New York Times Ross Douthat calls the Samantha Bee Problem, named after the late-night comedian whose unbridled criticism of fellow late-night comedians for not holding Trump accountable for past statements sparked a Samantha Bee Destroys headline-a-thon of its own. The widespread sharing of Bees segment, Douthat hypothesizes, is indicative of political chambers that inured Facebook audiences to conversations solely with those who share their opinions.
Among millennials, especially, Douthat argues, theres a growing constituency for whom rightwing ideas are so alien or triggering, leftwing orthodoxy so pervasive and unquestioned, that supporting a candidate like Hillary Clinton looks like a needless form of compromise.
That confirmation bias the psychological tendency for people to embrace new information as affirming their pre-existing beliefs and to ignore evidence that doesnt is seeing itself play out in new ways in the social ecosystem of Facebook. Unlike Twitter or real life where interaction with those who disagree with you on political matters is an inevitability, Facebook users can block, mute and unfriend any outlet or person that will not further bolster their current worldview.
Even Facebook itself sees the segmentation of users along political lines on its site – and synchronizes it not only with the posts users see, but with the advertisements theyre shown.
Test it out yourself: Go to facebook.com/ads/preferences on your browser and click the Lifestyle and Culture tab under the Interests banner. You see the box titled US Politics? Its followed with a parenthetical notation of your political alignment, from Very Conservative to Very Liberal.
Platforms and traffic-hungry websites have followed the behavioral lead of Facebooks users. News sources largely aggregators of video clips and interviews from other sites that barely exist beyond the sharing economy of Facebook have arisen as major players in the sites political news sphere.
Sites such as US Uncut, Occupy Democrats, Addicting Info, Make America Great and The Other 98% may barely have homepages, but their Facebook pages are rich with millions of followers and sky-high engagement in many cases higher than many mainstream news outlets combined. Occupy Democrats, a far-left page popular with supporters of onetime Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, has 3.8 million likes on its Facebook page. MSNBC, another left-leaning outlet with far wider reach outside of Facebook, has a mere 1.6 million.
Not everyone sees the proliferation of openly ideological outlets that meet the needs of openly ideological friend circles as evidence that millennials are more extreme in their confirmation bias than prior generations.
I dont see sufficient evidence to buy the argument about siloing and confirmation bias, Jeff Jarvis,a professor at the City University of New Yorks graduate school of journalism said. That is a presumption about the platforms because we in media think we do this better. More important, such presumptions fundamentally insult young people. For too long, old media has assumed that young people dont care about the world.
Facebook is, after all, a reflection of its users wants and behavior its not Mark Zuckerbergs fault people seek out like-minded news sources to buttress their political beliefs. Before Facebooks walled gardens came the cable news wars between left-leaning MSNBC and right-leaning Fox News, and before that, local newspapers that catered to the certain wings of a citys population. (Think the Washington Post versus the Washington Times.)
Newspapers, remember, came from the perspective of very few people: one editor, really, Jarvis said. Facebook comes with many perspectives and gives many; as Zuckerberg points out, no two people on Earth see the same Facebook.
The onus, then may be on millennials and all Facebook users to proactively seek out news sources outside of their ideological comfort zone.
Yes, Facebook shows us what our friends like, Jarvis said. But if you have smart friends, chances are they will send you to smart things. Further, arguments online show the existence of opposing views, so I dont buy that young people are unaware of other sides.
Journalisms job is to inform society. If society is ill-informed, it is our failure.