Facebook gets a lot of criticism for simply reinforcing your worldview in its News Feed echo chamber instead of challenging your opinions. That’s because you choose exactly which friends and pages to follow, so liberals can ignore Fox News or Breitbart while conservatives avoid The Atlantic and Huffington Post. But Facebook’s latest feature could bring a wider range of sources to your News Feeds.
Today, TechCrunch spotted a “Topics to Follow” box in the News Feed that lets you browse a range of topics like theater, horror films, or photography. By pressing “Follow”, you access a feed dedicated to this theme, populated by a collection of pages which publish on the subject. You can navigate to all pages from where you will then see public posts in your main feed.
Facebook confirms that this is a new “small test” and a spokesperson provided this statement:
“We’re testing ways for users to subscribe directly to News Feed topics so they can see more articles on the topics they like. In addition to following specific pages, this is a new way to follow general topics that interest you.
If the feature proves useful, it could be rolled out more widely. But it could also be abandoned if people find it confusing or unnecessary.
For now, it almost seems like Facebook has deliberately moved away from controversial or polarizing topics. The most incendiary one I saw might have been “Ocean Science & Conservation.” But you can imagine how this feature could work for topics like “Donald Trump”, “Healthcare”, “Refugees”, “Taxes”, “Terrorism” or others. By tapping into news sources from across the political spectrum, Facebook could expose people to contrarian views that might make them think twice about believing everything they read, challenging biases from their favorite sources and understand how their fellow citizens perceive information.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg disputed the prevalence of filter bubbles, citing a study by Facebook from 2015, which showed that 23% of users’ friends belong to an opposing political affiliation, and that almost 29% of News Feed articles contain opinions that conflict with a user’s ideology.
“Our goal should be to help people see a fuller picture, not just other perspectives. . . We need to be careful how we do this,” Zuckerberg writes. “Research shows that some of the most obvious ideas, like showing people an article from the opposite point of view, actually deepen polarization by presenting other perspectives as alien.”
Instead, it offers something similar to the Topics to Follow feature. “A more effective approach is to show a range of viewpoints, allowing people to see where their views fall on a spectrum and come to a conclusion about what they think is right,” Zuckerberg suggests.
One of the problems is that people might feel cheated if they suddenly see a contrarian perspective coming from a media outlet at the far end of the political spectrum and they didn’t realize they had followed a topic.
Twitter tried something a few years ago, letting you follow a Moment to see tweets on that topic from various people without having to find and follow them individually.
All the fake news and filter bubble controversy surrounding the election hasn’t slowed Facebook’s growth, according to its successful results report yesterday. Monthly active users are on the rise 17 percent since the first quarter of 2016, which is faster than its growth since 2013. Still, it must constantly find new ways to keep people coming back to the decade-old News Feed, for example by eliminating the work of tracking of their interests.