BURST YOUR FILTER BUBBLE
Why publishers need to foster differing viewpoints to keep users engaged
There are many words that have made their way into the collective lexicon in recent years – Dabbing, Fake News, Ghosting, Lit, the list goes on. One of the most pervasive terms, especially in media and journalism, has been Filter Bubble.
Coined in 2011, the term Filter Bubble originally meant the effect caused by hyper-personalized algorithms on social media sites which limited the diversity of information and opinions someone saw on their own news feed.
However, in the last three years, the term has expanded to the more general phenomena of people hearing, reading, and engaging with opinions that echo their own.
Filter bubbles, and more generally opinion diversity, are a big concern for journalists and publishers. Providing news coverage that sufficiently reflects the entire political spectrum enables readers to become truly informed about all sides of an issue. What’s more, curating an ideologically diverse audience promotes healthy dialogue and contributes to better online debates. Plus, un-filtering news media is just plain good for democracy.
But creating spaces for diverse opinions is not an easy task. A national newspaper is a big site, with lots of different sections and audience sub-groups. Unfortunately, that means that creating more diversity is not as simple as just publishing more diverse stories. We need to understand in which spaces and on which topics readers tend to agree and disagree in the first place. In our latest study we did just that, and tried to get to the root of what makes people engage with different opinions from their own.
Your social-networking site becomes a central platform—a closed silo of content, and one that does not give you full control over your information in it.
The more this kind of architecture gains widespread use, the more the Web becomes fragmented, and the less we enjoy a single, universal information space.
The logic of the algorithms to prioritize content liked by similar users or content that resembles content specific users like can have consequences for the diversity of the overall set of news that is presented to users, that is the extent to which users receive contents from different perspectives, sources, and categories.
In the US this has led to concerns that diversity could be reduced to a degree in which challenging content would virtually disappear from citizens news menus.
The way things were designed was that you picked up a paper and saw a whole. To the extent that people are getting really personalized headlines, we’re losing the sense of society as a whole.
News diversity… represents the means for a broadly informed public and is thus one of the ‘fundamental principles underlying evaluations of the performance of mass media systems.’
One measure of bias in online media is the level of polarization expressed by a newspaper’s readership, and by the news pieces themselves. By definition, polarisation is the division between two contrasting views or beliefs. In isolation, polarization in the media is a bad thing which contributes to the ongoing filter bubble effect for readers. For example, there is a large degree of polarization between Fox News, a conservative news outlet in the USA, and its left-leaning contenders like CNN. However, within one single publication, polarization is can be a measure of healthy, unbiased readership. Phrased another way, a high degree of polarisation within one newspaper would mean that a Brexit supporter and a Remainer could have a conversation in the comments section of an article, because they share the common tie of the news they are consuming.
As a polling tool, Opinary has access to thousands of questions that have been asked across a spectrum of publishers. We wanted to study this data to understand how polarized audiences really are, and try to find actionable insights for increasing diverse dialogue. We analysed 3,500 polls which ran from January to August 2019, on eight different publications in the UK and Germany, to try and get an understanding of the factors which promote polarization.
First, a note on the methodology: For this study, we defined “polarized” as any poll which had between 40% and 60% of votes for either viewpoint.
Overall, across all these eight publishers, the degree of polarization ranged from 16% to 28%. That means that out of all polls in our dataset, no more than 28% of those polls had diverse answers. Readers mostly agreed with each other on 70-80% of all questions. This is not a huge surprise given the general trend in news sites, but it does suggest there’s room to improve when it comes to audience diversification.
After understanding the macro trends, we broke down the degree of polarization per poll by the overarching news sections common across all the different publishers. The polarization by section broke down as follows:
In the most divisive position, with over 30% of all polls having a high degree of polarization, is the category of sports. This makes intuitive sense. In a large national newspaper, people might have similar political opinions, but sports allegiances are deep seeded and regional. It’s also a topic where there is a high societal normalization of disagreement.
Or, in other words, it’s taboo to get in a fight at the dinner table about the last election, but not about the last match between Bayern Munich and Hertha Berlin or Arsenal and Tottenham. It’s therefore not a surprise that the subject we disagree the most about is sports.
The progression of polarization also follows a similar logic. Health and culture are more divisive, and politics and news are more unified. What comes as a surprise is the topic with the most unification – automotive. Why would readership be more unified when it comes to automobiles than politics or finance? At the end of the day, do our differences and similarities really come down to the cars we drive?
If we take a closer look at the kinds of questions publishers asked in automotive polls, many are related to the readers’ views on diesel bans, e-mobility, climate change, and infrastructure. These are big topics that are hard to fully grasp, but which affect the reader’s everyday life. These are the kinds of things that tend to really unite your audience. How someone feels about these topics is likely also indicative of their views on politics, economics, science, and other subjects.
If journalists are going to break the filter bubble, they should learn from their automotive and sports sections. That is, take a close look at the topics which seem innocuous but actually spark contention. Small topics that take huge, overwhelming issues and bring them down to the reader’s day-to-day life. Find those topics, and turn them into conversations. Try to create the type of non-confrontational diversity that we take for granted in the sports section. Write the kind of article that would kick off a lively dinner table debate. Rather than focusing on the generic, high-level debates, find that little spark which will drive the most emotive response from your readers.