See political bias in your Facebook feed with Ven.
Featuring an exploration of how divided we are on social media, using data.
This is Ven:
Ven is a Chrome extension that displays whether news in your Facebook feed is from a publisher typically shared by people who lean politically left or right. And also while you browse:
Why I built Ven.
Since the 2016 election, much has been made in the media about “echo chambers”, the concept that we’re surrounding ourselves with like-minded individuals who don’t challenge our own ideologies. In particular, social media is blamed for making it easy to create these belief affirming chambers online. Yet, I suspect that individually we’re not aware of what effect this phenomenon has on our daily news consumption.
We are in a cycle where an increasingly polarized media is getting filtered by belief-affirming social networks. This only incentivizes media to create more polarizing content. Ven is not a solution, but a granular lens through which we can individually start understanding the extent of this problem.
Every time you see a news post, Ven reminds you that its visibility could be the result of someone trying to achieve belief affirmation. Or that it’s content created specifically to make someone feel that affirmation. And it’s a reminder that occasionally you should take a look at the front page of sources shared by the other side. Without this perspective, there is no way for us cross-check our own beliefs and assumptions.
So just how politically isolated are we on Facebook? There are interesting conclusions which can be drawn from public data, but first let's clear something up.
How does Ven know left from right?
Ven uses data from a Facebook study that followed 10.1 million American users for six months. Each user had already self-identified their political alignment on the platform. The study tracked the links that they shared over the course of six months, and ultimately computed an average alignment per news publisher on a scale of a liberal -2 to a conservative +2.
It’s worth noting that the data from this study was also used to power the Wall Street Journal’s popular Blue Feed, Red Feed graphic.
This score corresponds to the alignment of the average sharer of each publisher, not of the publishers themselves. Ven uses this alignment score to categorize the news in your feed. It’s worth noting that the data from this study was also used to power the Wall Street Journal’s popular Blue Feed, Red Feed graphic.
Read more about the study and how Ven categorizes news here.
And now, some commentary.
Is social media the problem?
Fox News is widely considered the first mainstream news channel to cater to a specific side of the political spectrum. Though they argue that their news is unbiased, whether it is frankly does not matter. The demographics of their audience is clear, and indeed the data shows that their average Facebook sharer is aligned far to the right.
A friend who is in that demographic often argues the rise of Fox News was necessary to bring “balance” to media. That every news network slanted slightly to the left, so there needed to be one network that catered to the right as a counterbalance. The argument was so mathematical that it seemed difficult to contend.
But, it starts to breaks down as soon as you consider what it means to get a balanced diet of news in this context. Fox as a counterbalance assumes their viewers also spend a lot of time watching mildly left slanted content elsewhere. Or that there is a ticker at the bottom of Fox News showing ideas from other networks, and vice versa. But of course, that's not the case. Before long, MSNBC evolved into its equal for the left. Countless radio shows, blogs, and Youtube channels catering to certain ideologies soon followed.
News consumption for belief affirmation was fertile long before social media. Thankfully, social media is actually making this visible, rather than confining it to living rooms. The data suggests that there is ample opportunity to see views which cut across ideological circles on Facebook. We just haven’t seized it.
Populism, or: Whatever happened to Moderates?
I’m not here to argue that moderate views are superior to those far from center. Nor will I argue that one side is more correct than the other. Instead, let’s try to examine how social media may be contributing this nation’s political divide. Revisiting the mentioned Facebook study:
This chart is staggering. The main takeaway is that an overwhelming majority of news shared during this study were made by those who lean far to the left or to the right. Comparatively, Moderates are not bringing much news content into the network. Which brings us to these box plots:
It’s no surprise that those identifying as Liberal or Conservative tended to be Facebook friends with majority like-minded people. Still — around~20% of their friends identified with the other side, and another ~20% identified as Moderate. Furthermore, Moderates tended to be friends with an equal number of Liberals and Conservatives. It’s hard to imagine being surrounded by individuals of such diverse views in real life.
What does this mean? Moderates on social media are uniquely positioned to serve as a bridge between both sides of the political spectrum. They have equal visibility to news shared by both leanings on Facebook, which can in turn inform their shares back to both sides. You would expect them to be the ones laying beliefs and assumptions onto a middle ground that both sides can stand on.
Yet, Moderates are sharing orders of magnitude less. Maybe they don’t get the same belief affirmation others do from sharing their views. Or maybe media content is not targeting them in the first place. But irrespective of the reason, they are getting drowned out by the proverbial echoes of chambers adjacent. It’s possible to see how this could lead to the perception that Liberals and Conservatives each occupy their own circles online. Circles that are seemingly populist, with no intersection.
A problem we can believe in. A ground to make common again.
Is this where Ven comes in, bringing those circles together towards something which resembles, say, a Ven Diagram [sic?]? Single-handedly, no. But before finding a common ground, we need to understand how it vanished to begin with. We need to discover where the assumptions and facts that both sides can agree on actually exist. If that sounds vague, it’s because it is — I, like most everyone, have no solution. There was no solution the previous eight years, when a significant group of America felt unheard, saw policy that they could not reason with, in an economy that didn’t favor them. On January 20th, this became true for yet another segment of America.
My hope is that Ven is one small step, among many others, towards helping different sections of the country hear each other. Towards reinvigorating a healthy marketplace of ideas that further an understanding in one another. And towards ensuring we have a government that is, as President Lincoln once declared on a field ravaged by the Civil War, still of the people, by the people, for the people.
Want Ven for Safari? Email updates? Let me know.
Data from: Bakshy, Eytan; Messing, Solomon; Adamic, Lada, 2015, “Replication Data for: Exposure to Ideologically Diverse News and Opinion on Facebook”, http://dx.doi.org/10.7910/DVN/LDJ7MS, Harvard Dataverse, V2
Charts from: Bakshy, Eytan, Solomon Messing, and Lada A. Adamic. “Exposure to ideologically diverse news and opinion on Facebook.” Science 348.6239 (2015): 1130–1132.
Have anonymous 1:1 conversations across the political spectrum with Echo Remix, currently holding Beta sessions.