Facebook, echo chambers and the binary era
The decision by Facebook early this year to tweak its news feed has blindsided many. In fact, most are still digesting the contents of the blog post put up by Facebook boss, Mark Zuckerberg, on 12 January.
“Recently we’ve gotten feedback from our community that public content—posts from businesses, brands and media—is crowding out the personal moments that lead us to connect more with each other,” he said before announcing the changes. “We’re making a major change to how we build Facebook. I’m changing the goal I give our product teams from focusing on helping you find relevant content to helping you have more meaningful social interactions.”
Effectively, public content on Facebook will be pared in favour of friends’ and family posts. As Zuckerberg explained in his blog post, “We feel a responsibility to make sure our services aren’t just fun to use, but also good for people’s well-being.”
In the process, the social media giant (its users are upwards of 2 billion) from Menlo Park is tacitly owning up to a bunch of things. One, it is admitting that a lot of what went on in the public posts (including fake news) was avoidable. Second, it has formally taken a step towards assuming some more responsibilities of being a media company by deciding to play gatekeeper to posts on its platform. (As a colleague wrote last year, many have railed against this ambiguity around Facebook.)
Third and most importantly, the decision to tweak the news feed is by implication putting a finger on one of the biggest challenges of the rapidly expanding social media space: creation of echo chambers, or what some call filter bubbles.
This is stoking a feeding frenzy of binary conversations—my way or the highway is a good example of this trend. And this has become a global phenomenon, including in India. Conversations have become echo chambers, where we only like to hear views similar to ours. And if you dare to hold a contrarian view, the internet trolls will be all over you.
What it does (as previous columns have sought to explain) is to shrink the space for moderate views. Without this, all that is left in a debate are extreme views. So are we surprised that conversations have become so acerbic and confrontational?. The just-concluded election campaign in Gujarat is an example of rapidly deteriorating public dialogue; for that matter, so are the share of daily soap operas passing off as prime-time debates in a section of electronic media and online portals.
In fact, in an exit interview granted to India Today television channel last year, Pranab Mukherjee, the former President of India, made a very pertinent observation on his biggest takeaway from 48 years of public life: “I learnt a fundamental lesson that there is nothing comparable to debate and discussion and exchange of views in Parliament. Of course, there is dissension. For the success of parliamentary democracy, this lesson should be learnt by everyone who wants to serve through Parliament.”
This eschewing of public dialogue can be disastrous, particularly for a democratic country like India which at any time is fielding infinite trade-offs—environment vs. development, right to privacy vs. efficiency, rules-based vs. exception-based regimes, equity vs. growth and so on. Already social conversations on these trade-offs are acquiring an extreme hue tinged with violence and hate; they are very close to the tipping point.
It is obvious then that without moderate views in the mix, no meaningful and sustainable solution can be explored for these difficult trade-offs.
So maybe this is the moment for moderates to shed their diffidence and match extremist views stride for stride. As they say, better late than never—an option that would be an unmitigated disaster.
Anil Padmanabhan is executive editor of Mint and writes every week on the intersection of politics and economics. His Twitter handle is @capitalcalculus.
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