I saw six separate posts this morning on Facebook from people remarking about the political echo-chamber they’re been inserted into. Unlike Twitter, Facebook’s algorithms classify everyone – whether you’re politically active or not – as conservative, moderate, or liberal. To Facebook and its advertisers, which it sells this data to, that’s the end-all-be-all of political options.
See what political view Facebook thinks you hold
You can see how Facebook classifies you by going to facebook.com/ads/preferences and clicking “Lifestyle and Culture”, which is usually tucked under a “More” dropdown. Once you view the dropdown, look for “US Politics” and see how it classifies you.
I’m labeled a “Moderate”. I didn’t use to be, though. I’ve done some work over the last year to pull out of the “liberal” bubble. Facebook assumed because of a variety of factors (my age, occupation, location, and sexuality, most likely), that I must be liberal. This makes Facebook show me posts, articles, and friends’ stories that match that viewpoint. You can imagine how damaging this has become to a lot of political discourse.
How the algorithm works inside and outside Facebook
Facebook’s algorithms work well beyond just what you do in Facebook. Naturally everything you “Like”, comment on, and write feeds the beast. Facebook even knows when you hover over a post with your cursor or stop scrolling for a moment. This allows Facebook to know what’s likely to catch your eye – like a puppy, topless person, or a meme.
Beyond Facebook’s borders the tracking pixel and session data comes with you on your signed-in devices to the sites you visit. If you visit a lot of NowThis, MSNBC, and Occupy Democrats, you’re going to get pegged quickly. This is also why mobile devices are so much more valuable to Facebook. They know from the cost of your device how much your income likely is and they know where you are more frequently. Google on Android is a little more upfront about this, but Facebook follows, too. After visiting Pearings Downtown one weekend I saw ads the rest of the week to “Like” their page.
It doesn’t matter if you have ad blockers enabled. They’re still hoovering up data on you, but perhaps with a little less accuracy. The Facebook Pixel is nearly ubiquitous at this point and works as a game of whack-a-mole with ad blockers. As a web developer I use the Facebook Pixel on ecommerce sites we work for. It enables us to advertise to people on Facebook when we know they’ve visited one of our clients’ sites, for example.
How to break out of the bubble
Short of going back and “re-friending” or “re-following” people you may have unsubscribed from because of their political views, the rest takes some brainpower.
I made a conscious effort to follow more publications, newspapers, and people of opposing views. This is a big benefit of “diversity”. It’s not just ensuring you hear from black people. It’s ensuring you hear all kinds of things. For example, I started following the National Review on Twitter. I started following political reporters and operatives on all ends of the spectrum – liberal, conservative, libertarian, and socialist. And I make an effort to read the good stuff. Eventually the algorithm equalizes and you start seeing all sorts of stuff on Facebook.
I also make a conscious effort not to “Like” everything I see. Think of “Liking” as making a purchase. If you buy that story, post, comment, or article, expect to see more of it and less of the stuff you didn’t.
That is, if you really want to see it. For some of the sources I like, check out my Twitter following.