Our View: Stuck in the bubble

A sinister change has taken place out of the corner of our eyes. It began with the loftiest of ideas, but we all know where the road goes when it’s paved with good intentions.

This particular road has led our nation to anger, polarized opinions and little chance of compromise, but how did we get here? Essentially, we tampered with a system that has worked for hundreds of years. We replaced it with social media.

In the old days, we consumed news from a few sources we trusted, first in physical newspapers and then with the addition of online versions. The internet wasn’t an easy transition, but the latest statistics show more and more people are returning to those tried-and-true traditional sources.

That’s great news for those of us who believe in the sanctity of the news media – the unofficial cog in the government machine we refer to as the fourth estate. Or, at least, it would be if a third party hadn’t placed itself squarely between us and our readers.

We are speaking, of course, of Facebook, its siblings in the social media industry and even the search engines we use to find our data. At some point during the online revolution, the brains behind these inventions decided we would all benefit from a personalized experience.

When you open your browser, it remembers what you do and don’t like, what you’ve been thinking about and probably the brand of beans you last bought at the grocery store.

It uses that knowledge to decide what you might like to look at today. That’s great if you’re not sure what takeout to order from, but less so when your computer starts deciding your political opinions.

They call it the “bubble”: the tailored experience that brings you only the news it knows you’ll want to see – the news you’ll agree with. Are you pretty sure most of the country agrees with your opinions about the president? That’s because the algorithms are showing you the stories that do.

Are you certain everyone agrees those pesky millennials are ruining the nation? Convinced your views on hot topic subjects like abortion and global warming align with the majority?

A lot of people do agree with you, whatever your views – but only those people inside your personal bubble. Your online experience is making you think otherwise because that handy personalization feature is blocking out everything else, and it doesn’t even tell you it’s doing it.

The problem is that it’s only through considering other opinions and debating our own position that we, as human beings, come to genuine consensus. That’s how democracy is meant to work.

But what happens if we’re only listening to one side of the argument because we’ve unknowingly relinquished responsibility to this third party? What happens when a growing number of us are consuming news that way without even realizing it?

Polarization is the only logical endpoint, and we can already see it happening. Almost every debate raging in today’s social consciousness has two distinct sides – and most of us only see one of them.

The implications of this chill us to the bone, and we’re not alone. Even Mark Zuckerberg, founder of the almighty Facebook juggernaut, has realized the darkness has arrived. Just this month, he published an online manifesto to readers asking the question: “are we building the world we all want?” and has pledged that the platform will be making changes to the way it works.

It could be too little, too late. According to Wired magazine, a Facebook employee stated shortly after the 2016 election that hyper-partisan misinformation had become, “a disease that’s creeping into the entire platform”. Multiple decisions that made it the dominant social media site have led to one unfortunate outcome: Facebook had, and has, too much power over us.

Ensuring citizens have access to accurate news simply isn’t on the company’s list of priorities – it never has been. Facebook dominates our lives because that’s exactly what it was aiming to do, come hell or highwater, by taking down the competition and making itself indispensible.

Zuckerberg and his team just didn’t really think about the consequences. Why would they? They are not and never have been part of the fourth estate. They’ve never even claimed to be.

Personalization is not the only problem with relying on social media for our news, but it is, we feel, among the worst. We believe this nation has tackled the greatest of challenges during its history and, as a community, steered our way through each of them with patriotism, passion and democratic consensus, all of which were fuelled by the information provided to us.

It’s not too late. We urge our own community to turn back to old habits and choose your sources wisely from the media outlets that have proven their worth, making sure to include at least one that takes an opposing view to your own in its editorials.

Facebook says it’s making changes, but can it really replace the pillar of democracy that the world as a whole relies on? The fourth estate brought us through revolution, civil war and depression, to name but a few. If we remove that screen of “personalization”, it can bring us through the trials to come as well.

The social media giant often uses the buzz phrase that it aims to offer users, “time well spent”. We believe that perusing the work of the journalists trained to serve you is time much better invested.

We are better than Facebook allows us to be. It’s time to remove the middle man standing between us and the information we need.