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This is the age we live in now. One in which GIFs of politicians elbowing their wives and memes of awkward vice presidential hopefuls have the power to influence people’s perception of reality and, ultimately, their vote.
(In case you missed either of these, here they are for your enjoyment.)
But more than the fact that a social media site has the ability to sway public opinion one way or the other, the most mind-boggling thing about Facebook’s rise is the fact that only a handful of engineers and editors in Menlo Park decide what is seen on the news feeds of 1.65 billion active users (roughly one-fifth of the world’s population).
This privileged group of people could be a determining factor in whether Clinton or Trump take over the White House; in whether we put “America first” or “don’t do stupid stuff”; or whether we build a giant wall or break the proverbial glass ceiling for women.
While you may be tempted to think that Facebook is just about inoffensive Game of Thrones memes and cute cat pics, it is actually shaping public opinion as we speak.
At Visme, we're on a mission to make complex information easy to understand, so we decided to create a series of thought-provoking visuals to determine just how much Facebook is molding what we perceive as important and not important.
Here is what we found...
For years now, scholars have warned about the dangers of listening to our own voices and living in artificial filter bubbles devoid of opposing views.
The argument went that if people read only news that reinforces their own personal opinions and ideology, then they would start to create virtual echo chambers. (Eli Pariser describes this theory best in his famous TED talk below.)
But research on the real effects of personalized news feeds is still ambivalent.
For example, one study concluded that there’s nothing to worry about: Nearly 25% of the hard news content people clicked on cut across ideological lines.
On the other hand, there are also results that should alarm us. One study revealed that Facebook was able to affect people’s emotions by manipulating the content. And yet another study found that by manipulating Google search results, the voting preferences of undecided voters shifted by up to 20%.
To further muddy the waters, there are also arguments that the question is not whether sites such as Facebook should personalize news feeds, but whether this is a result of a user’s individual choice or a decision made by a mysterious algorithm.
According to a recent poll, most Americans believe that social media sites should have some say in what we deem as "news." (Click on chart to view animated version.)
Whichever your view, we know that serving up content as a result of users’ history of clicks, likes and shares does ultimately limit their freedom to choose, even if this is a result of their past choices.
After all, what kind of algorithm could predict whether or not I would one day decide to click on an article out of my ordinary “news diet” (if I have the chance to see it), just like when I have a craving for a food I normally don’t eat?
Facebook has gotten so big that it’s even edged past Google in the traffic referral race. As of 2015, Facebook is officially the number 1 traffic referral source to news sites, with a sizable advantage over Google.
But that’s not all. According to Pew Research Center, 44% of Americans get their news from Facebook, while 63% of active international users report getting their daily dose of news from there. This is way ahead of other social media sites such as YouTube and Twitter.
A study published in the Journal of Experimental Political Science also found that the number of likes and comments a particular political candidate received on their Facebook page influenced users' perception of him or her, causing them to favor those with the most positive feedback.
What does this all mean? That Facebook is officially not just a social media network to connect with high school classmates and old friends from college--it's a veritable media company with the power to set the national agenda and sway public opinion.
A few weeks ago, Gizmodo reported that former Facebook news curators routinely suppressed stories from conservative news outlets in its selection of trending topics.
Given that this tiny section at the upper-right hand corner of your Facebook news feed now dictates what 1.65 billion active users are reading at any moment during the day, it sparked plenty of conservative backlash.
In response, Facebook's VP of global operations, Justin Osofsky, posted this overview of how its Trending Topics section works.
Despite the allegations that it has "a series of checks and balances in place to help surface the most important popular stories, regardless of where they fall on the ideological spectrum," the guidelines seem to indicate otherwise.
The process followed by Facebook editors to select trending topics was as follows:
As you can see, this process gives a handful of editors--mostly college graduates--a considerable amount of power to decide what's important and what's not.
But the part that most alarmed conservatives was the fact that of the 10 major media outlets consulted in the process, Fox News was the only right-wing site on the list. (You can see the full list here.)
If you've never thought about how much power Facebook has over your perception of what's important and what's not, then just take a look at the Trending Politics Topics section of three different Facebook users during the same time of the day. Although all three have similar ideological views, the topics that they see are very different.
Even if users were to look at only the top trending topic, they would see completely different news stories: One about the Supreme Court, another about Turkey and a third about Kathleen Willey.
This informal experiment just goes to show that besides editorial discretion, individuals' history of clicks, views and shares also have a great weight in deciding what appears in this section.
All of the tiny interactions we think nothing of--such as sharing a funny meme with a friend or watching a viral video of how to make cheesy breadsticks--feeds information to Facebook's algorithm to foresee what we would like to click on and read.
But strictly in terms of ideology, the numbers seem to suggest that the bulk of Facebook interactions (clicks, shares, views and likes) occur with content created or propagated by center- and left-leaning media sites.
As seen in the chart below, there are a greater number of Facebook followers for sites like CNN (which is considered moderate by AllSides) than for left- or right-leaning sites such as Huffington Post, the New York Times, Fox News or Breitbart News. (Click to view animated version.)
In the case of the nation's leading news blog, Huffington Post, Facebook drives 16.27% of its total traffic. The numbers go down for bigger media sites, such as CNN and FOX, since these get the majority of their traffic from direct visits. In the case of sites that are not visited directly as much, such as NPR, Facebook accounts for up to a fifth of the total traffic.
But besides the fact that Facebook does drive, overall, more traffic to liberal sites than conservative ones, it also seems like it has the power to influence the level of engagement with sites.
While the former may be due to the fact that Facebook users tend to be more liberal and younger than the rest of the population, the latter cannot be chalked up to differences in user demographics.
Take, for example, the following chart. It reveals that the number of Facebook likes or followers for leading conservative media pages has increased from January to May of this year.
While this is expected, considering that media sites are continually growing their follower base, what's not expected is that the engagement rates (number of likes, comments and shares divided by the fan base) for all of these pages would drop during this same time period.
Given that the number of people who are continually exposed to the content posted by these sites has grown in the past five months, it would be foreseeable to see a spike, rather than a dip, in engagement.
To put this data into perspective, we also took a snapshot of the current engagement rate for a handful of the most followed liberal media on Facebook. We found that the pages with the most comments, likes and shares was Huffington Post, followed by Politico and the Washington Post (see chart below).
When compared to the engagement rates of conservative Facebook pages, however, it was found that the latter actually registered much higher engagement rates, especially in the case of Breitbart and Fox News. (Click to view animated version.)
This just goes to show that engagement rates can also be reflective of how active a particular page's fan base is and how well the posts resonate with the page's followers.
So, while all these numbers don't conclusively prove that Facebook manipulates its Trending Topics to suppress conservative views, it does show that the site's influence on public opinion is growing and should give Facebook users, especially right-leaning ones, some food for thought.
What is it exactly that we're seeing that others are not? Are we really living in virtual bubbles created by our own preferences and world views?
If you're curious as to what someone of a different ideology from yours sees on his/her Facebook, we'll leave you with this composite news feed (full-screen version here) to see what a conservative's Facebook might look like in comparison to that of a liberal. (It's a live feed, so you can scroll through each page to see real-time posts. Enjoy!)