As the UK worked through the aftermath of the vote to leave the European Union, Tom Steinberg found himself frustrated. “I am actively searching through Facebook for people celebrating the Brexit leave victory,” he wrote. But to no avail. He called on his friends in the technology industry to act on this ‘echo-chamber problem’.
A day later someone else I know – a former journalist now working in the tech sector – expressed the same frustrations — on Facebook, naturally. It seems we have a problem.
At the time of writing Steinberg’s tweet has been retweeted almost 4,000 times. Clearly there is a desire for connection – and yet…
Why are they making the demand of social media companies — and not news organisations?
Technology’s role used to be our role
There is something in that tweet – and the volume of retweets it received – that says something about how we see technology now: both as something separate from society and something that we look to to ‘solve’ its problems.
Remember when we thought that was journalists’ role?
The ‘filter bubble’ of the UK press is well documented, no more so than in SubScribe’s thorough analysis of selective Daily Mail coverage, but that is “the British press”.
Why? Maybe we accept it as a price to pay for the freedom of the press. Maybe because the media is regulated in ways that Facebook is not.
Maybe we expect technology to be designed in ways that newspaper coverage is not.
Maybe we fear being seen as being ‘complainers’ or ‘bad losers’.
Maybe we know the response: if you don’t like it, buy another newspaper.
And we can say the same thing of social media: “If you don’t like Facebook, try Twitter.” But that’s not the point.
A fixed algorithm
In time I believe we will come to terms with the biases of social media just as we have with the biases of journalism: and I do not mean just the obvious biases of the Daily Mail, Sun, Guardian and Telegraph, but the biases of a news system with an algorithm every bit as fixed as Facebook’s, expressed in formulae like
white lives > black lives and
south > north.
That algorithm is expressed in recruitment too: in the last 3 years 98% of new hires had a degree and over a third had a master’s. Although I teach one of those masters degrees myself, I do not think this is good for journalism’s filter bubble. Half of the country is not represented in our newsrooms.
Tom’s experience, meanwhile, was not mine: I saw Facebook updates from people who voted on both sides of the debate.
And the image that stuck out was the image below: shared by people who voted Leave suggesting that if Facebook was an echo chamber, well then it wasn’t quite working well enough.
Design your filter bubble out
I do not live in London: this is a deliberate decision in part to avoid the filter bubble within which 60% of UK journalists live. I have lost count of the number of times a broadcast journalist from a national media organisation has called me for an interview — only for them to realise that I’m not based in the capital and cut the call short.
“Ah, we can’t interview you then.”
Fair enough. Journalists often resort to the path of least resistance when they need to hit a deadline (two words: Taxpayers Alliance). The fact that they’re calling me in the first place is probably because they or a colleague already has my phone number. I’m white, male, and easy to find on social media and the web. I’m now part of the ‘establishment’ and I’m not going to pretend otherwise.
Amidst the panic and confusion in the UK since Friday, though, one encouraging move has been visible: journalists visiting places like Meriden, Sunderland and Northampton in a search for the other half of the country. Trying to answer Tom Steinberg’s question and give a voice to the until-the-referendum-voiceless.
Soon they will return to their desks and their computers, and their algorithms will resume normal service. But perhaps they will have a slightly different perception of their audiences; perhaps those newsroom algorithms might change by a degree.
You design your own filter bubble. And now a journalist’s beat is not just the physical paths that they tread but the data trails that they leave behind as they navigate social media and the web: following accounts, liking pages and friending individuals they may not even like or agree with. In fact, preferably exactly those types of people and groups.
Designing serendipity into your workflow is now part of what makes a good journalist: curiosity expressed algorithmically. Design your way out of the filter bubble.