Why every American should look at “Blue Feed, Red Feed” — and why the nation needs someone to build a better version

An example of what you might have seen today on Blue Feed, Red Feed

Eight months ago, the Wall Street Journal built a remarkable news application, Blue Feed, Red Feed, which displays — side by side — a selection of Facebook posts from liberal and conservative news sources. Whatever your political persuasion, I don’t think you can understand the first week of the Donald Trump administration without taking a look.

I say this as someone whose Facebook feed is dominated by my liberal friends, whose unhappiness with Trump and his policies has been conveyed with anger, tears and in many cases, participation in marches and airport protests. What I’ve seen in my Facebook feed — stories about airport chaos and protests over the weekend — suggested to me that even if you were in favor of the new immigration restrictions, a reasonable person could be critical of how the decision was made and implemented.

Then I read what the president had to say: “… we were totally prepared,” he said. “It’s working out very nicely. You see it at the airports, you see it all over.”

Add that quote to last week’s comments from advisor Kellyanne Conway about “alternative facts” and advisor Steve Bannon’s declaration of war on the mainstream media, and something became clear to me for the first time:

Trump is governing as if the only input and feedback he gets come from his political base.

That observation may not be surprising, especially given the president’s known tendency to bask in the support of his campaign audiences. It may not even be true. But it’s clear from comments over the past week that a lot of people, regardless of political persuasion, are surprised that Trump is doing exactly what he said he would on the campaign trail, and wasting no time in doing so. That has not been typical for incoming presidents, who have often walked back their more controversial statements upon winning the election, and who tried to build support by reaching out to political opponents.

The realization that Trump is behaving differently is what led me back to Blue Feed, Red Feed. I think it’s currently the best place for anyone — left, right or center — to see our nation’s political polarization in stark relief.

For instance, at 12:50pm Central time today, here were two posts near the top of BFRF if you chose the “Executive Order” view:

The difference couldn’t be more stark. On the left, the ACLU says it’s clear that the immigration order is unconstitutional. On the right, a “former terrorist prosecutor” says it’s totally legal.

There’s nothing new about the fact that our nation is polarized politically, or that liberals and conservatives are gravitating to different sources of news. What’s new is that it’s now so easy for any American using Facebook (or Twitter) to avoid seeing political perspectives that conflict with his or her own preconceptions.

We need to assume that the president and his advisors are among those living in a political bubble in which they are hearing nothing but applause for what they are doing.

If you make that assumption, everything that the new administration is doing makes sense — while, if you are opposed to these actions, you wonder how Trump and his allies can ignore what seem to be obvious missteps.

That’s why I love BFRF. It makes clear that when it comes to many issues, there are two wildly different interpretations of reality. If you’re pro-Trump or anti-Trump, you will gain a deeper understanding of your political opposites. If you — like me — believe that we need to find common ground and tackle our nation’s problems together, BFRF will make clear how hard that’s going to be. And you might even learn something from the posts in the other column.

There are some other people who have an even deeper need to spend time with BFRF: namely, people who have the authority to make decisions to implement or block the White House’s actions. That includes Congress, the courts and anyone in the executive branch who is charged with implementing policies drawn up by the new administration. Not to mention the opponents of these policies, who need to understand how they are perceived by people outside their own respective political bubbles.

Still, it’s important to recognize the flaws of BFRF, and to build a better version.

The feeds in BFRF are not real Facebook feeds. No real person sees either the left side or the right side of BFRF. As the site itself explains, the blue and red feeds are collected from Facebook pages that were identified by Facebook researchers in a scientifically designed study whose goal was to understand how users interact with socially shared news.

The posts you see in BFRF come from people the researchers determined were “very liberal” or “very conservative” based on self-described political leanings. And the developers of BFRF say they removed sources that were shared by lots of people on both sides of the political spectrum.

So BFRF intentionally presents two dramatically skewed views of the world — posts published by Facebook pages whose audiences are most likely to be isolated from the other side’s point of view.

BFRF is still illuminating — and highly useful in understanding what’s happening in Washington these days — if you accept my premise that President Trump is basing his actions (and reactions) on the sources on the right side of BFRF.

But I am starting to imagine a better version of BFRF, one whose goal isn’t just to display stark contrasts, but instead one that might help our nation attack the toxic political polarization that we are seeing all around us.

A better BFRF might include the following:

  • Select posts not just based on the known political orientation of specific Facebook pages — but on which posts are getting traction in “blue” and “red” communities.
  • Use natural language processing techniques to match posts based on subject matter, so blue and red posts discussing the same subject appear right next to each other.
  • Generate permalinks for these “purple” matching posts so they can be shared (side by side) as a single post on social media.
  • Make it possible to choose your topic of interest rather than be limited to the categories currently built in to BFRF:

If we had the BFRF I am imagining, it would serve as a fabulous platform for rigorous fact-checking — one that would make it easy for the fact-checkers to call out lies and exaggerations by both the right and the left.

I think this BFRF could help all of us better understand one another. It might even help centrists and reasonable people with political and philosophical differences find common ground.

Professor and director of digital innovation, Medill School, Northwestern U.

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