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Facebook Study and Open-mindedness

June 30, 2014

As a middling Facebook user, I was interested to read about a recent study conducted whereby it was demonstrated that readers’  mods were affected by the news feeds they received. Those receiving upbeat news feeds were demonstrably happier than those who received negative news feeds. While many news outlets engaged in hand-wringing over this, Cathy O’Neill aka The Mathbabe was elated:

It’s got everything a case study should have: ethical dilemmas, questionable methodology, sociological implications, and questionable claims, not to mention a whole bunch of media attention and dissection.

By the way, if I sound gleeful, it’s partly because I know this kind of experiment happens on a daily basis at a place like Facebook or Google. What’s special about this experiment isn’t that it happened, but that we get to see the data. And the response to the critiques might be, sadly, that we never get another chance like this, so we have to grab the opportunity while we can.

Of course she’s right about the fact that this kind of study happens daily: it HAS happened for decades in advertising agencies who are trying to find ways to connect with consumers and was a source of deep concern for George Orwell in his analysis of Hitler’s rise to power. I think the study overlooks a paradox of technology: the more media outlets there are the less people are willing to consider another individual or group’s perspective. That led me to make the following comment:

Here’s another hypothesis this study might support: the customization of news feeds has contributed to the polarization of politics in our country. There was a time when there were only three major news sources available to people on a daily basis and the news they provided was governed by a fairness doctrine. The segmentation that began with cable TV has increased with the internet making it possible for people to get, for example, “Christian News”. This segmentation leads to a situation where one’s world view is constantly reinforced making it harder for open-mindedness to prevail.

Her short post has links to the study itself, which was an interesting read. The bottom line from my perspective is that we need to include mindfulness in schools as soon as possible so people can gain a clearer understanding of how their mind works.

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