Why you shouldn't rely on Facebook (or other social networks) for news

Social networks like Facebook and curation tools are altering the way you consume news online but not in a good way.

By Nikhil Pradhan Published Date
30 - Sep - 2013
| Last Updated
30 - Sep - 2013
Why you shouldn't rely on Facebook (or other social networks) for...

The story, the tale is where it all started.

Human beings have always been hunters and gatherers of information. The first fables, stories that were told to children had the implicit purpose of ensuring that news travelled not just across distances but also across time. With the onset of the printed word, news became a business, one that didn’t just affect the lives of the common man but also of entire governments and nations.

After what’s widely considered to be the golden age of news, it was high time for the news industry itself to be shaken up. And then, like an invading army of Conquistadors, the Internet rolled in and did exactly that. The funny thing is that in spite of all the hue and cry about the inherent unreliability of online news and how newspapers were the only ones that could be trusted, the news business has evolved to fit into the online era. Even with newspapers dying left, right and center, there has never before been such a tremendous availability of news in history. This is because news is no longer the sole domain of news organizations- social networks and news aggregation sites like Mashable and Reddit are massively important names even if they aren’t in the business of reporting or journalism.

With such an infinitely large amount of news available online, it would make sense you would want to be extremely selective about where you decided to get the news from. And since you were already spending a decent amount of time on social networks (say, Facebook), it would also make sense for Facebook to attempt to fulfill that need.

Although Facebook’s intentions were (probably) pure, having news driven to your newsfeed automatically by algorithms purely based on your behaviour on the social networking site can lead to what Internet activist Eli Pariser calls the ‘Filter Bubble’. 

The Bubble

The Filter Bubble as depicted by Eli Pariser

Let’s start off with an example:

You have two new friends on Facebook- both very opinionated about politics and predisposed to sharing a number of articles everyday on the social network. One friend (let’s call him Friend A) is someone whose political beliefs only match yours by about 20%, however Friend B is someone who you have a lot in common with and therefore whose political beliefs match yours by up to 80% most of the time.

Now, let’s say news stories shared by both these friends start appearing on your Newsfeed. The likelihood is that you will click on more stories shared by Friend B rather than Friend A. Also, since you have more in common with the former it’s more likely that you will have visited their profile page and interacted with them more often than Friend A. In due course of time (which may even be as short as a day), you will notice that Friend A’s stories have either completely disappeared or are much less visible on your Newsfeed.

Okay, let’s zoom out and look at this situation from up high. Even if you’re not clicking on the stories shared by Friend A, it doesn’t mean that you aren’t noticing them. You may be browsing through the headlines, may have searched for the topic discussed by the story on your own instead of clicking on the story in Facebook etc. But according to Facebook’s new EdgeRank algorithm (that places importance on your interactions with particular friends, reactions to a particular post and your inclination to interact with a particular type of post), that is responsible for creating your Newsfeed, none of that matters. As a result, Facebook (with the help of your own unconscious or conscious actions) tries to set up a filter between you and a vast pool of news/content, only letting in things that comfort you or you’re most likely to click on.

EdgeRank explained. Infographic courtesy PostRocket via BufferApp

This is the filter bubble Internet activist Eli Pariser has been speaking about since 2010 but whereas he spoke about how Google searches were being tailored to fit a user’s search history, a phenomenon that’s actually difficult to replicate as several researchers and journalists found out when all their search queries resulted in more or less the same results, the concept of a user being “shielded” from information is starkly apparent on Facebook.


Eli Pariser speaking about the Filter Bubble at a TED conference.

The news you want, not the one you need

But why is this a topic worth talking about? Surely, people very seldom rely on Facebook for news? That’s an assumption that’s no longer the truth, at least in parts of the world where Facebook is intrinsically part of a person’s daily life. According to a study published by the Pew Research Centre in September last year, 33 percent of American young adults (those under the age of 30) relied on social networks for news. Considering the vast leaps we’re taking to catch up in matters of technology consumption to our Western counterparts, we aren’t far away from a time when middle-class, educated Indian young adults begin relying on Facebook (or other social networks) for a majority of their news, especially since Facebook already takes up such a big part of our daily lives.

Pariser noted in his excellent TED Talk how algorithms were giving us access to “the news we want, but not the one we need.” The Facebook example I stated earlier represents that phenomenon. People who rely on social networks for news tend to be exposed to topics that they’re more likely to find comfortable rather than topics that they should know about but would not be inclined to follow up on. Whereas in newspapers or in TV news broadcasts all stories are right in front of you with a story’s importance decided by editors, on social networks, you’re essentially playing the role of editor.

The upside: News Curation

Before I start sounding like too much of a curmudgeon or a luddite, let me emphasise that playing ‘Editor’ and wielding the ability to curate news to our exact requirements can be a very powerful tool indeed. In fact, the emergence of a huge number of news curation tools for smartphones, tablets and the PC means that we can actually go out and get a constant flow of information on topics that we would otherwise not have access to, even through newspapers or TV news.

One of the biggest tools intended for this purpose has been RSS (or the Rich Site Summary, also dubbed Really Simple Syndication), a format that allows regularly updated online content such as news to be viewed and exported in a standardized format. Even though Google Reader, the most widely used RSS powered news aggregation tool, recently called it quits, RSS is still used by a wide number of tools in order to help users pick and choose content and sources.

There are a ton of tools out there that will help you tailor your newsfeed according to what you want. Of these, the likes of Flipboard, Pulse Reader and Feedly are already well known and extremely popular among smartphone and tablet users. These tools not only let you choose specific topics you may be interested in (such as Arts and Entertainment, Politics, Sports etc.) but also let you add news sources by exact keywords and also individual sites. If you’re looking to go beyond what social network algorithms believe you should read, take some time out to personalize one of these tools with topics and sources that interest you. Throw in some sources that cover topics that you wouldn’t usually follow, some new topics or sources that you’ve never delved into.

An example of a user created Flipboard magazine on the Middle East

Keep in mind, these tools will work best if you actually make it a point to carefully select trusted sources and news. A tool like Flipboard actually also makes it very easy to succumb to convenience if you just decide to stick to your social network feeds or the pre-packaged topics on offer. At the end of the day, these tools, when used right, should help you create a library of news that goes beyond what your social network’s newsfeed has to offer.

How do you consume your news online? Let me know in the comments section below or on Twitter @postwar

Nikhil PradhanNikhil Pradhan