There are currently no products, vaccines or drugs approved to treat or cure the coronavirus. However, that wasn’t the news on social media. There was much misinformation and many false claims populating consumer news feeds. In fact, Facebook is now coordinating with health organizations to make accurate information about the virus easier to find. Unfortunately, there are still many paths to misinformation.
Platform algorithms selectively guess what information a user would like to see. By filtering content, these platforms sort out news that we may disagree with or dislike. Filter bubbles narrow the opportunity to learn from differing perspectives and that’s cause for concern. Richard Fletcher at the Reuters Institutes explores these concerns in his study, The truth behind filter bubbles: bursting some myths.
Further, with heightened interest in Corona news, consumers seek platforms (e.g. Facebook, Google, Twitter) for their daily updates. It implores us to try to understand the impact of filter bubbles created by socially curated and algorithmically driven news content.
Fletcher’s study contends that offline news sources, without algorithms, provide a natural filter effect. Offline readers self-select their new sources. The report refers to this as self-selected personalization. It’s the personalization we do by selecting what newspapers to buy, what TV channels to watch, and at the same time which ones to avoid.
In contrast, online news consumption is often about pre-selected personalization, where choices are made for consumers by algorithms, without the consumer’s knowledge or understanding. Social media includes both self-selected personalization and pre-selected personalization. We know that people may choose to follow certain news outlets and not others. Algorithms offer no choice; they are not exposing people to news items outside of their interests or likes.
Significantly, Fletcher’s research investigates the level of polarization that exists in online news consumption compared to offline news environment. The research looked at 12 different countries and found in general, online news environments are more polarizing than offline.
It’s important as consumers continue to receive their news on social platforms, that they actively seek out a range of news brands. Further, platforms are changing the way they serve news to people each day. It’s essential for the media industry, consumers and social advocates to critically examine the effects of algorithmic selection on news impact on society. Social platforms effort to ensure accurate information on the Coronavirus is easily accessible is a step in the right direction.