As the media class struggles to understand an election result few foresaw, some have blamed a quirk of modern technology. “The ‘Filter Bubble’ Explains Why Trump Won and You Didn’t See It Coming,” New York magazine announced the day after the election. “Your Filter Bubble Is Destroying Democracy,” Wired declared a week out. One month in, an M.I.T. Media Lab analysis confirmed that Trump supporters “exist in their own information bubble,” as Vice reported — and that journalists didn’t let Trump supporters into their bubbles, either.
The filter bubble describes the tendency of social networks like Facebook and Twitter to lock users into personalized feedback loops, each with its own news sources, cultural touchstones and political inclinations. We seem to like these places, and so do social media companies — they keep us clicking from one self-affirmation to another. But now our bubbles are being blamed for leading us toward the most divisive presidency in recent memory, and suddenly, the bubble doesn’t feel so inviting anymore. So media and tech companies are pivoting, selling us a whole suite of offerings aimed at bursting the bubbles they helped to create.
Few people get a kick out of acknowledging their own biases, so new digital features are easing the way with candy-colored visuals and interactive quizzes. Download the Chrome extension PolitEcho and watch as it crawls through your Facebook network and visualizes its political bias based on how many of your friends “like” pages dedicated to Breitbart, Marco Rubio, Bernie Sanders or NPR. Then hop over to the PBS website and take a quiz, conceived by the libertarian Charles Murray, that rates your affiliation with “mainstream American culture.” (Rack up real-American points for having evangelical Christian friends, eating at IHOP and watching “Dr. Phil.”)
Other tech products invite us to reach out and understand other people without the hassle of actually talking to them. FlipFeed, a Twitter plug-in created by M.I.T. researchers, provides a voyeuristic thrill: Click a button, and your regular Twitter feed is replaced by that of a random, anonymous user of a different political persuasion. (It’s perfect for seeing how the other half live-tweets a Trump news conference.) And the iPhone app Read Across the Aisle gamifies political outreach — as you read articles from The Huffington Post or The Federalist through the app, you’ll see a meter turn red or blue based on the particular site’s ideological bent.
The real ingenuity of these solutions lies in stripping opposing ideas of their negative emotional impact. It’s not too hard to find people who disagree with you online — just create a Twitter account, state an opinion and watch the haters roll up — but the heated social media climate provides a tense, abstracted version of human connection that often leaves both sides more polarized. To alleviate the tension, BuzzFeed is testing a new feature, “Outside Your Bubble,” which pulls in opinions from across the web and gives them a neutral platform. A curator takes the often-emotional comments, removes them from their combative context and rephrases them as cogent, dispassionate bullet points.
Escape Your Bubble, a plug-in that seeds your Facebook feed with opposing political views, goes a step further, repackaging partisan content with an aggressively positive affect. Each story appears with a pink heart icon and a banner that says: “Happily inserted by your EscapeYourBubble Chrome Extension :)”
Meanwhile, a new crop of online media offerings comes equipped with like-minded guides who travel to the other side and present their findings. Every week, the Washington journalist Will Sommer publishes a kicky newsletter digest, “Right Richter,” which aggregates right-wing perspectives for left-leaning audiences. Slate’s “Today in Conservative Media” feature provides a similar service. And Crooked Media, a political podcast network created by former Obama staffers, just debuted a new show, “With Friends Like These,” in which the liberal journalist Ana Marie Cox shepherds listeners through conversations with conservative guests.
A cynical impulse lies behind many of these kumbaya vibes. The same social media networks that helped build the bubbles are now being framed as the solution, with just a few surface tweaks. On the internet, the “echo chambers” of old media — the ’90s buzzword for partisan talk radio shows and political paperbacks — have been amplified and automated. We no longer need to channel-surf to Fox News or MSNBC; unseen algorithms on Facebook learn to satisfy our existing preferences, so it doesn’t feel like we’re choosing an ideological filter at all.
But now, no entity is playing the filter bubble crisis more than Facebook itself. The company’s leader, Mark Zuckerberg, has published a manifesto of sorts, “Building Global Community,” which jockeys for Facebook to seize a central role in opening our minds by exposing us to new ideas.
Just last summer, the company was whistling a different tune. In a blog post called “Building a Better News Feed for You,” Facebook declared that the information it serves up is “subjective, personal, and unique — and defines the spirit of what we hope to achieve.” That all seemed harmless when the network was a site for reconnecting with old high school friends, but now Facebook is a major driver of news. (A Pew study from last year found that 62 percent of Americans get news on social media.) And as Mr. Trump rose, Facebook found itself assailed by critics blaming it for eroding the social fabric and contributing to the downfall of democracy. Facebook gave people what they wanted, they said, but not what they needed. So now it talks of building the “social infrastructure” for a “civically-engaged community.” Mr. Zuckerberg quoted Abraham Lincoln as inspiration for Facebook’s next phase.
The agitators and audiences for these new fixes have an ulterior motive for expanding their horizons, too. Recent calls to burst the filter bubble have come largely from liberals and #NeverTrump conservatives alarmed by their election losses. Their bipartisan spirit has partisan roots. President Trump’s critics feel the practical need to break down these ideological cocoons, so they can win next time. Charlie Sykes, a former conservative radio talk show host who was blindsided by Mr. Trump’s win, now writes of the need to dismantle the “tribal bubble” of modern American politics, where citizens are informed through partisan media and bullied into submission by Twitter mobs. And Sam Altman, the president of the start-up incubator Y Combinator, recently set out from the liberal Silicon Valley and traveled across America to better understand the perspectives of Trump voters. His final question to them: “What would convince you not to vote for him again?”
It will be more difficult to entice Trump supporters to consider alternative perspectives, and not just because the president himself has declared the mainstream media the “opposition party.” As members of the winning team, Trump supporters have no urgent need to understand the other side. Besides, it’s not too hard to find left-of-center perspectives in the news media. Typical members of the mainstream media are, if not expressly ideological liberal, then at least poorly positioned to pass Charles Murray’s “mainstream American culture” quiz.
In his manifesto, Mr. Zuckerberg spoke of the need to grow local news outlets (which have seen their prospects plummet even further as Facebook tightens its grip as a leading source of news) and present people with a range of perspectives. Whether those sentiments make their way into every feed remains to be seen — after all, Facebook became an internet superpower by serving up easy, compulsively clickable content. Some Americans are interested in peeking outside their filter bubbles right now, which gives tech companies an incentive to cater to their desires. Will they feel the same way when they’re winning again?