Facebook politics (Updated)

3 06 2015

Politically where I live in Scotland it is a very interesting time. We have just had a momentous general election, and memories of the independence referendum are still fresh in everybody’s mind. On top of that we have elections for the Scottish parliament coming up soon as well.
As a scientist, a psychologist, I find the many ways in which my human brain can trick me endlessly fascinating.

One of the biases that as a scientist I know I need to be especially careful of is the availability heuristic. When faced with making a decision we would be paralysed to the point of inaction if everything to do with that decision needed to be considered before we could act. As such evolution has given us a handy shortcut. We are much more likely to base our decision on immediate examples that quickly come to mind. We are biased to consider the immediate information that comes to mind more important but sometimes it is actually misleading.

10,000 years ago when our important decisions consisted of whether to eat that berry or not this bias served us well. If the person in the next hut had eaten a berry and was feeling sick that was a good indication it would make us feel sick as well. Don’t eat the berry.

Today the important questions we face are normally a lot more complicated than that. Unfortunately due to a combination of people being unaware of the availability heuristic and the explosion in social media people have been falling prey to a common cognitive bias.

We have recently been asked politically to make some very important decisions. These decisions have not been black and white, eat the berry or not, they have been very much more shades of grey.

In the run-up to the election I deliberately sought to read as many different sources of information as I could find. As someone who subscribes to the Guardian I felt slightly dirty buying the Daily Mail but it was important for me to hear more than one side of the story. As someone who voted no in the referendum I still make sure to look at websites such as Bella Caledonia and I still occasionally buy the pro independence newspaper The National.

As a scientist I know that if I come up with a theory it is my job to try and look for examples that don’t fit in with my theory. It is not enough to just rely on the immediate evidence right in front of me.

As a scientist this is one of the reasons why I’m not on Facebook. Facebook has algorithms that seek to only present you with information that they think you want to see. Just like the berries these algorithms are beneficial if all you want to see are baby photos and cat videos but they are very misleading if you rely on Facebook for your political information (or science news).

It is not helpful, in fact some people see it as being anti democratic, that Facebook is biased to show you political opinions that just reflect your your own. Up here in Scotland there is a view that the established media, the big newspapers and the BBC, are biased against the independence cause. That might be the case but if you are relying just on Facebook for your information then you are opening yourself up to another bias. Just because all you see supports your view doesn’t mean there isn’t another side to the story.

As scientists we must take care to not evaluate a concept or a decision only relying on the immediate examples that spring to mind. As people in a democracy making important political decisions we shouldn’t just rely on our potentially biased Facebook “news” feeds either.

Just because the immediate examples seem to show an overwhelming body of opinion supporting one particular view doesn’t necessarily mean that that is actually an accurate representation of what is going on in the world.

Update 9/4/16 

Stories are being written about how Facebook’s News Feed is put together. Far from being algorithm driven and neutral as the site would like you to believe it seems the site has been using humans, with all their biases and limitations, after all. 

I didn’t realise Facebook was aiming to become an official source of news. I thought they just shared links to already existing material. 

It seems that news bias rather than just being a consequence of the way Facebook works is actually a real issue and one even the company themselves are trying to keep users unaware of:

“One reason Facebook might want to keep the trending news operation faceless is that it wants to foster the illusion of a bias-free news ranking process—a network that sorts and selects news stories like an entirely apolitical machine. After all, the company’s entire media division, which is run by Facebook’s managing editor Benjamin Wagner, depends on people’s trust in the platform as a conduit for information. If an editorial team is deliberating over trending topics—just like a newspaper staff would talk about front-page news—Facebook risks losing its image as a non-partisan player in the media industry, a neutral pipeline for distributing content, rather than a selective and inherently flawed curator.” Source

Even more worryingly it now appears that human made content decisions have resulted in claims of anti conservative bias (in the U.S. at least):

“Facebook workers routinely suppressed news stories of interest to conservative readers from the social network’s influential “trending” news section, according to a former journalist who worked on the project. This individual says that workers prevented stories about the right-wing CPAC gathering, Mitt Romney, Rand Paul, and other conservative topics from appearing in the highly-influential section, even though they were organically trending among the site’s users.” Source

Facebook users beware. 

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