It seems that I’m often writing about incidents on Facebook these days; perhaps this means that I’m spending too much time on Facebook, or it might just mean that more of our discourse has shifted out of the campus sphere and onto social media.
The problem with that shift is that the way Facebook’s algorithm works, it’s incredibly easy to enter an echo chamber of partisanship in which you are only served information that confirms your own existing biases. You lose the accountability mechanism that a different ideological profile might provide if the only posts you see on your Facebook feed are from friends and personalities with whom you agree 100 percent of the time. It’s one thing to surround yourself in person with friends who might agree with you, but something else altogether to only see news stories and posts that confirm personal partisan biases.
The Wall Street Journal demonstrates this bias confirmation in their recent “Blue Feed, Red Feed” article. The article shows that for any given issue, partisan Facebook users may receive entirely different stories than someone on the other side of the ideological spectrum; yet, many of those stories are factually incorrect, claiming that Hillary Clinton condescendingly wagged her finger at a crowd, or that 28 percent of the Florida GOP switched sides to vote for Clinton. The real danger in this shift in discourse is that people are using it as a substitute for real action, content to simply post to Facebook, feel good about themselves, and then wash themselves of the issue. That’s detrimental to real action.
Let’s use this past weekend’s Facebook campaign about the Dakota Access Pipeline as an example. My politics lean to the left, so Facebook, in its quest to lock down more content creation and sharing, accordingly serves me more liberal-leaning posts. Over the past few weeks, members of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe have been protesting the planned construction of an oil pipeline near their reservation’s main water supply. Over the course of a single day, it seemed as if scores of my friends had suddenly teleported to North Dakota in support of the Standing Rock Sioux. A rumor had spread that North Dakotan police were using Facebook check-ins to track and identify protesters, so activists called on sympathetic Facebook users all over the country to check in at Standing Rock, ND in order to confound the police’s efforts.
All in all, NPR reported that 1.5 million people had “checked in” at Standing Rock, ND. However, this campaign was not actually effective in confusing police or assisting protesters. Mother Jones, no friend of pipeline construction, writes “There is scant evidence at the protest that the story behind the post is true.” Yet, the original post that people had been urged to copy and post declared that this was “concrete action” that people could take in order to support the Standing Rock Sioux and fight the pipeline’s construction.
Blinded by partisan fury, it became difficult for people to pause and actually consider the ramifications of their posts. Some people even unironically shared a post urging people to check in at “Randing Stock, ND,” showing that they probably had not read through the whole post before copying and sharing it.
The real harm done by the Standing Rock campaign was that it’s likely that many Facebook users took advantage of posting as a substitute for any real action on the pipeline’s construction, like donating to the protesters or writing letters to elected officials in North Dakota. This exemplifies so-called “slacktivism” – protest that has minimal costs for the participant but a high “feel-good” effect. Of course, not everyone has the time or resources to actively participate in every protest, but perhaps sitting out rather than fanning the flames of a hearsay-driven campaign is better than sharing everything that comes along on Facebook.
Outside of the partisan echo chamber of Facebook, how many people does clicking and sharing a post really reach? It’s time to stop checking in and time to start checking out. It may not be feasible to actively fact check everything that comes your way on Facebook, but surely there’s a way to break out of the partisan echo chamber that has shaped so much of our online discourse lately. After all, factual accuracy isn’t a partisan issue.
Nicholas Wu is a Wilson School major from Grosse Pointe Shores, Mich. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.