Get your news from Facebook if you never want to be challenged

In the mid-1960s, Bob Dylan was on top of the world. Hugely popular, he’d garnered critical acclaim as the leader of the folk music scene that was influencing social movements in the United States and beyond.

But on July 25, 1965, Dylan chose to jeopardise all that. He went on stage at the Newport Folk Festival, in front of thousands of adoring fans. At first glance, all looked normal — but instead of his usual acoustic guitar, Dylan was carrying a Fender Stratocaster.

The crowd was expecting the folk music that had made him famous, and when Dylan started playing the electric guitar, they became irate and started booing. Fellow folk singer Pete Seeger was so upset he tried to interrupt the performance by cutting the power cables with an axe, and Dylan left the stage after playing just a few songs.

This story is told in Elijah Wald’s wonderful book, Dylan Goes Electric, and it’s an iconic moment in music history because Dylan did something rare and difficult: instead of giving his fans what they wanted, he exposed them to something new and unexpected, even though that risked losing his audience along the way.

I couldn’t help but think of this tale last week when it emerged that Facebook employees may have been suppressing Right-wing articles on the “trending news” section of the website.

This understandably caused a fuss, but the much bigger issue with Facebook and other websites isn’t censorship — it’s how they use data analytics to give us more of what we already like. If you look at your Facebook news feed, everything on there has been automatically chosen based on the company’s analysis of your pre-existing opinions and tastes.

“If you look at your Facebook news feed, everything on there has been automatically chosen based on the company’s analysis of your pre-existing opinions and tastes.”

So depending on whether you’re Left- or Right-wing, you’ll be shown stories from news sources you’re likely to agree with. Or to use a music example, if you’re into folk singers, you’re unlikely to be shown posts featuring electric guitars.

Facebook isn’t the only company using algorithms to give users articles based on what they already like and dislike. After all, it’s a logical way for tech companies to encourage people to spend more time on their sites.

But as the story about Bob Dylan shows, progress depends on being open to new ideas and influences. If he’d listened to nothing but folk music, he’d never have switched to electric guitars, and wouldn’t have evolved as an artist.

The same goes for a vibrant public debate, which depends on all of us being exposed to a plurality of viewpoints and perspectives. Sadly, this isn’t always the case today, which is an under-discussed paradox of the digital age: we can theoretically access more information than ever before, yet technology is creating echo chambers in which we mostly receive information that confirms our prior assumptions.

This isn’t healthy, and perhaps we need to be a little more like Bob Dylan, and deliberately engage with new ideas and inspirations, however difficult that might be. Dylan did that by switching from folk music to electric guitars, and never looked back.

For us mere mortals, this isn’t easy — especially when Facebook and other sites give us more of what we already like, and less of what we don’t. And it’s always comforting to have your prejudices confirmed rather than challenged. But if Dylan was willing to do it in 1965, surely we can do the same today.

by Rohan Silva 
Originally published at www.standard.co.uk on May 17, 2016.


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