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January 5, 2017

Book Review: Social Physics : How Social Networks can make us Smarter

January 5, 2017

How bad is my filter bubble problem? Please help me find out

January 5, 2017
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In an idle moment over the Christmas break, I decided to run a twitter poll to assess the extent of filter-bubblemy filter bubble. For any of you who’ve been on a different planet for the last few months, that’s the social media phenomenon whereby you like/follow/read only those sources that broadly agree with you, creating an echo chamber that can lead to you mistakenly thinking that the public agrees with you. I realized how bad things were when I noticed that even the things I read that are furthest from my own general views, e.g. the Economist, were in the same Clinton/Remain camp as me.

So I used the handy new twitter polling tool to ask my twitter followers to say which combination of Trump/Clinton and Brexit/Remain they voted for or supported (where not eligible to vote). As I’d expected, the initial responses were heavily Clinton/Remain (94% after 150 votes), then fell back a bit as people retweeted and so more diverse networks came into play. Even so, after 24 hours and nearly 400 votes, it was still 90%. Final results were:

  • 3% Trump and Brexit
  • 2% Trump and Remain
  • 5% Clinton and Brexit
  • 90% Clinton and Remain
Lots of walls, not many bridges

Lots of walls, not many bridges

Charles Kenny sensibly pointed out that this was measuring the wrong people – the followers rather than the followed, which is where I get my information and ideas from. Anyone got an idea for how to assess the uniformity/diversity of the latter (other than some massive exercise in analysing all their tweets)?

But it was still an interesting exercise – gave me a sense of two big in/out networks with very few bridges between them. So I thought I’d run it as a poll on the blog (with other options acknowledged this time – apologies to the people in the US who voted for 3rd party candidates – forgot to offer that option on the twitter poll). Over to you.

In the US/Brexit election, who did you vote for or support (if ineligible to vote)?

View Results

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What to do about it? I can’t see me avidly consuming the Daily Mail every morning, but does anyone know of a curated source of articulate, intelligent opinion from outside my bubble? If not, could someone please start one?!

Matt Collin weighed in on twitter with a few thoughts:

  • Start up dialogues with groups you never talk to (e.g. anti-aid, Brexitiers)….
  • Do talks in communities in ‘Little England’, connecting development issues to local ones
  • Pitch pieces for conservative newspapers/sites, even if rejection rate is v. high. Write about issues that build bridges between sides

All good ideas, but all difficult to do in practice – I generally wait to be invited to speak, and suspect I will have to wait a long time for an invitation from the anti-aid lobby, except as a human sacrifice (tried that, not fun). Hours in the day a problem on endlessly pitching to conservative media.

On the other hand, I don’t think I have the chutzpah (or, let’s be honest, the looks) to do what Arab-American tenor Karim Sulayman did shortly after the US election

 

Karim Sulayman – I trust you from Meredith Kaufman Younger on Vimeo.

Any other suggestions for effective, time efficient ways to break through the bubble?

 

24 comments

  1. >> I can’t see me avidly consuming the Daily Mail every morning
    Why not? I do look at their website most days. Takes 10 mins. And if I’m bored or have time to kill (more realistically, need displacement from an impending deadline) I engage in the comments.
    Have you ever gone door-knocking or canvassing for a political party. I have in the past, for Labour, although not nearly enough. It’s actually been great practice for the professional lobbying part of my paid job and gets you out of the bubble as well as the office.

      1. Chris Rose describes campaigning as a conversation rather than a broadcast. That implies many things including listening and ‘getting into the head’ of your interlocaturs on one hand, but also finding ways of not just preaching to the choir on the other. Our bubble is not just who we hear from but also who hears from us.

      2. I wonder if you have thought of having a word with your MP Kate Hoey, who seemed to think it was a smart idea to cosy up to Nigel Farage. I struggle to understand why her local party has not at the very least asked some tough questions about how she can be fit to represent them

  2. Quick check ins with other points of view –

    UK, the Spectator coffee house blog and daily email

    US, @shaneclaiborne is a good view into why so many Americans are fed up with their system, and some fun tactics for changing it

  3. What about engaging with groups of people who come together under another unifying issue than transcends/surpasses polictics and therefore has the potential (at least) to bring together people who do not share the same political viewpoint – e.g. religious groups. In ‘How Change Happens’ you talk about the need for development practitioners to engage more wholeheartedly with religious groups, could you do a mini ‘How Change Happens’ tour across a series churches/mosques/temples/synagogues? Of course the extent of the diversity of viewpoints in the groups may vary across different places, but it would be possible to target religious groups in parts of the country which voted strongly for Brexit, thereby enhancing the chances of a good number of audience members being of a different political ilk to yourself.

    I also wonder whether it would be possible to do something similar at Universities. My sister works at a university in Sheffield and was surprised that many of her students voted for Brexit. Perhaps you could specifically target presenting to students at Universities in pro-Brexit parts of the country.

    Neither of these would satisfy your need for a more diverse daily media content, but they made lead to some interesting debates.

  4. Every morning I look at the Guardian, Telegraph, Independent and FT. I also use FB more than twitter where I have a more diverse group, because my friends and family in the US are more politically, economically and socially diverse than the ones I’ve made in the UK (the development sector in the UK isn’t exactly a hotbed of working class unrest…). I also use it for personal stuff, which I never do on twitter. I’ve only ever unfriended one person, and that wasn’t because I vehemently disagreed with him (which I did all the time, especially over things like the insanity that was Pizzagate), but because he started to have a go at my other friends.
    I suspect that ‘the bubble’ is inevitable if you haven’t moved from one social class to another, if all of your close friends and colleagues are (and always have been) similarly urban, educated to postgraduate level and middle class. It’s not really a question of reading the Daily Mail but understanding it, feeling it even when you deplore what it says. It’s the difference between being concerned about the rise in the use of food banks in the UK and having actually been to a food bank yourself. Feeling the shame and the fear and the hopelessness. The book ‘Hillbilly Elegy’ is really interesting on this, because at its heart it’s about the pain of social mobility, both for those who’ve moved on up the ladder and for those who have been left behind. Highly recommend.

  5. Duncan, like Ross’s comment above, this won’t help you break through the bubble, but may help others glimpse another angle. I did what the NYTimes suggested (which indeed doesn’t sound like a good starting point, for NYT’s liberal views are solidly in my camp), but started reading these six books: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/10/books/6-books-to-help-understand-trumps-win.html?rref=collection%2Fsectioncollection%2Fbooks&action=click&contentCollection=books&region=rank&module=package&version=highlights&contentPlacement=8&pgtype=sectionfront&_r=0. On book five now, and it did drill home some stuff.

    Joris
    Green card holder, living in East Africa

    1. I really like this idea. Does anyone know of similar list for understanding Brexit in the UK – or could we start to construct one?

  6. It’s also possible to change your bubble by choosing non-political interests and then introducing your conversation topics here. So I look at the political views of people in my beekeeping circle and motorcycle club. Individuals who have one thin in common with me, but who have different life stages and political views.

  7. I always try and drum up a conversation when in a cab – hear very different views from those in my bubble.

    If you worked for Unilever or Nestle you’d pay people to take you out of your bubble. They spend thousands on focus group where people to sit and eat biscuits and talk to each other about yoghurt/noodles etc. make them feel, while you sit behind a 3-way mirror.

  8. I accidentally selected the wrong box, and am utterly ashamed to have accidentally given one more vote to Clinton / Brexit!

  9. Duncan, I love the intent and spirit of this post and reflection. I think it needs to be much more broad though — the world isn’t broken up into Remain/Clinton vs. Brexit/Trump, which is very Western-centric. I know you already do this, but I’d encourage you to look at sources from other parts of the world in the Middle East, Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Al Jazeera and the Hindu are great starts.

    I’m getting a bit nauseated with so much focus on Western national politics, which is why I’m heading to New Zealand for a short while…

  10. Extremely important issue in these polarised times. I have tried to enter the mud-pit (as it were) using Twitter, and tried to engage. Twitter, because a lot of those people don’t read blogs, and I prefer to use Facebook to talk to people I know.

    A tiny fraction of that engagement is civil, a lot of it is argumentative and the remaining is outright hostile/abusive. What I have been trying to understand is whether people change their views (or move towards being more reasonable) as a result of exposure to a opposing point of view. Honestly, I find very little of that. But the tiny fraction that is civil gives me hope, that it is a constituency I can work on expanding. At the same time, I have to keep checking that i don’t end up taking entirely unreasonable positions myself (I keep slipping, to be honest).

  11. I generally read the Guardian (for the liberal-left) and Economist (liberal-right) but regularly look at the Daily Mail and Sun, particularly when there are major work-related stories (anti-aid stories like this week’s one on cash programming) or when I’m interested in how they are reporting something (Refugees/migration in particular, but Syria and South Sudan, El Nino etc).My key objective is to understand the narratives they are setting up – was very intrigued by a point in the Guardian that if your narrative is that you can’t get a council house because of immigration, it gets lots of pick up, but if its because of mass sell-offs to buy to let landlords it doesn’t, even in the Graun (which is of course read by many people with a bought to let apartment or house). Spiked-online.com is an interesting more thought-provoking outlier. Finally, more distant ends of the family tree are often useful, I have several Brexit-voting relatives and in-laws, and getting a sense of why they did so is informative (if depressing – ‘my boss said it was what he was doing’.)

  12. I do read other newspapers, and most importantly their comment sections quite regularly on topical issues I am interested in, though they wind me up something rotten and I don’t hang about very long! I think the comments particularly help with that, the stuff that comes out on my fav rag The Guardian is very very eye opening too! I follow people on twitter I don’t agree with too, but still, don’t spend much time in their world unless I have to for work!

    I am infuriated by the algorithms ‘curating’ what I see on all social media now (there is virtually no mainstream social media site that doesn’t do that, as far as I understand). We should be able to click a button to opt in or out of curated content at the very least. In addition there should be transparency about what and how things are curated also. I think there is stuff afoot to try and counter that I believe.

    The other thing is to constantly question whether you think you are right or not, particularly when you are 100% certain! Certainly at work, inviting other voices to contribute is essential. As someone above says, the big companies do that regularly, but NGOs don’t often do, or, like me, they spend so much time talking to people who disagree with them, it doesn’t really seem necessary!

  13. On analyzing your twitter networks: There are many tools for analyzing who follows you (good for marketers) but fewer for analyzing who you follow. One that I know does this is Followerwonk – https://moz.com/followerwonk/ – See a report for you here: https://moz.com/followerwonk/analyze/fp2p

    It doesn’t do much on how those people are connected or content analysis of their tweets, but it does give you things like location and word clouds of their bios.

  14. Duncan,

    I really appreciate this post. I concur with Samir on the self-obsession we Westerners are indulging at the moment (heck always really), but I’m still there. My immediate reaction after the US election was ‘how am I this out of touch?’ I need to find ways quickly to better understand and communicate with a set of stakeholders of a very different worldview. My first step is to read some things written by conservative pollster, speechwriter and pundit Frank Luntz. There are many others I’m sure to pick up in the next few years. I’ve often scanned conservative media disdainfully; now I’m trying to more quickly recognize that thought pattern when it kicks in and think more anthropologically about the values and stakes that underlie what I’m reading. There are common threads between different worldviews and I’m trying to train myself to tease them out better in hopes of being able to engage with civility and humanity.

  15. Duncan – prompted by your post on bubbles; this might not be directly what you were talking about but can I offer some thoughts? Ive worked across all the sectors (business, public and third) and in different industries (which I’ve found is not that common), and I’d observe that every sector can tend to be inward looking with its own language. Both in my consulting work and personally I’ve found many of the best insights come from looking across at other organisation and sectors to see how they tackle both internal and external challenges. Its not about copying but adapting or maybe just prompting different ideas. That tends to happen via personal connections

    After about 15 years working with different development organisations, starting with a lot of time with Oxfam, and postgrad study on development, I have to say that Ive found the development sector to be about the most inward looking of all, and much less open to absorbing ideas from elsewhere. It certainly has its own language! There is usually the potential for a two way flow as well – there was a great moment when DHL (I think) came to talk to Oxfam because they were interested in how Oxfam was able to respond quickly and at scale to humanitarian crises and disasters and felt they might learn something

    A part of that is what you refer to is about the network(s) that people have and the extent that they extend beyond their own sector or industry. So often I’ve been with development folk who talk about all of those who work in the business world as though they were talking disparagingly about a different ethnic group! Im being slightly provocative to make a point – but only slightly. I know it takes time and effort to build and maintain those sorts of networks but its possible.

    I do try to keep an eye on blogs or sites with very different perspectives, even if at times I have to grit my teeth! CapEx, Spectator, Centre for Policy Studies would be a few which offer challengingly different economic and political perspectives. Its hard work given that there is so much out there that you want to read, before you get to the stuff you don’t really want to read. However, I think it also needs some personal contacts as well as social media or on-line. As you and others are saying, social media can narrow rather than broaden perspectives

    Good on you for wanting to get out of your comfort zone a bit. I nearly always read your blog – even if I don’t always agree with it!
    All the best

  16. Certainly interesting food for thought. One trick I’ve learned is to search for other articles on the same topic as one that came up on my feed; just skimming the different headlines an issue gets between media sources can be informative. But the bubble phenomenon works in strange ways. I’m working outside of my home country right now, so in the leadup to the US election my online sources were all screaming that Clinton would win of course! And I’d disheartedly accepted that, until I was back in California for September and October. That was when I began to sense things may be different, because despite its liberal tendencies and history, I wasn’t seeing much support at all for Clinton; almost no road signs or pickets in people’s yards, no bumper stickers on cars, none of the usual “passive” support offered in the US by people who are not generally active. But they’ll pick up a sticker or a sign at the farmer’s market – if they’re at all interested. This time around, the Clinton campaign was either not doing its job in connecting passively with voters, or they were being turned down. While not exactly papering the streets, the only signs out were for Trump (and amazingly un-vandalized! in California!) It was a completely different world than what I’d been seeing via Facebook and online news. So sometimes popping the bubble really requires “unplugging” completely, not just diversifying who you follow online.

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