The Problem of Filter Bubbles Hasn’t Gone Away

Steven Cherry Hi, this is Steven Cherry for Radio Spectrum.

In 2011, the former executive director of MoveOn gave a widely-viewed TED talk, “Beware Online Filter Bubbles“ that became a 2012 book and a startup. In all the talk of fake news these days, many of us have forgotten the unseen power of filter bubbles in determining the ways in which we think about politics, culture, and society. That startup tried to get people to read news they might otherwise not see by repackaging them with new headlines.

A recent app, called Ground News, has a different approach. It lets you look up a topic and see how it’s covered by media outlets with identifiably left-leaning or right-leaning slants. You can read the coverage itself, right–left–moderate or internationally; look at its distribution; or track a story’s coverage over time. Most fundamentally, it’s a way of seeing stories that you wouldn’t ordinarily come across.

My guest today is Sukh Singh, the chief technology officer of Ground News and one of its co-founders.

Sukh, welcome to the podcast.

Sukh Singh Thanks for having me on, Steven.

Steven Cherry Back in the pre-Internet era, newspapers flourished, but overall news sources were limited. Besides a couple of newspapers in one’s area, there would be two or three television stations you could get, and a bunch of radio stations that were mainly devoted to music. Magazines were on newsstands and delivered by subscription, but only a few concentrated on weekly news. That world is gone forever in favor of a million news sources, many of them suspect. And it seems the Ground News strategy is to embrace that diversity instead of lamenting it, putting stories in the context of who’s delivering them and what their agendas might be, and most importantly, break us out of the bubbles we’re in.

Sukh Singh That’s true that we are embracing the diversity as you mentioned, moving from the print era and the TV era to the Internet era. The costs of having a news outlet or any kind of a media distribution outlet have dropped dramatically to the point of a single-person operation becoming viable. That has had the positive benefit of allowing people to cater to very niche interests that were previously glossed over. But on the negative side, the explosion of a number of outlets out there certainly has—it has a lot of drawbacks. Our approach at Ground News is to take as wide a swath as we meaningfully can and put it in one destination for our subscribers.

Steven Cherry So has the problem of filter bubbles gotten worse since that term was coined a decade ago?

Sukh Singh It has. It has certainly gotten much worse. In fact, I would say by the time it was even coined, the development of filter bubbles were well underway before the phenomena was observed.

And that’s largely because it’s a natural outcome of the algorithms and, later, machine learning models used to determine what is being served, what content is being served to people. In the age of the Internet, personalization of a news feed became possible. And that meant more and more individual personalization and machines picking—virtually handpicking—what anybody get served. By and large, we saw the upstream effect of that being that news publications found out what type of content appealed to a large enough number of people to make to make them viable. And that has resulted in a shift from a sort of aspiration of every news outlet to be the universal record of truth to a more of an erosion of that. And now many outlets, certainly not all of them, but many outlets embracing the fact that they’re not going to cater to everyone; they are going to cater to a certain set of people who agree with their worldview. And their mission then becomes reinforcing that worldview, that agenda, that that specific set of beliefs through reiterated and repeated content for everything that’s happening in the world.

Steven Cherry People complain about the filtering of social media. But that original TED talk was about Google and its search results, which seems even more insidious. Where’s is the biggest problem today?

Sukh Singh I would say that social media has shocked us all in terms of how bad the problem can get. If you think back 10 years, 15 years … Social media as we have it today, would not have been the prediction of most people. If we think back to the origin of, say, Facebook, it was very much in the social networking era over most of the content you were receiving was from friends and family. It’s a relatively recent phenomenon, certainly in this decade. Not the last one, where we saw this chimera of social network plus digital media becoming social media and the news feed there—going back to the personalization—catered to the one-engagement rhetoric, one-success metric being how much time-on-platform could they get the user to spend. Which, comparing against Google, isn’t as much about the success metrics, it’s more getting you to the right page or to the most relevant page as quickly as possible. But with social media, when that becomes a multi-hour-per-day activity, it certainly had more wide-reaching and deeper consequences.

Steven Cherry So I gave just a little sketch of how Ground News works. Do you want to say a little bit more about that?

Sukh Singh Absolutely. So I think you alluded to this in your earlier questions … going from the past age of print and TV media to the Internet age. What we’ve seen is that news delivery today has really bifurcated into two types, into two categories. We have the more traditional, more legacy based news outlets coming to the digital age, to the mobile age, with websites and mobile apps that are tailored along the conventional sections of, here’s the sports section, here’s the entertainment section, here’s a politics section—that was roughly how the world of information was divided up by these publications, and that has carried over. And on the other side, we see the social media feed, which has in many ways blown the legacy model out of the water.

It’s a single-drip feed where the user has to do no work and can just scroll and keep finding more and more and more … an infinite supply of engaging content. That divide doesn’t map exactly to education versus entertainment. Entertainment and sensationalism has been a part of media as far as back media goes. But there certainly is more affinity toward entertainment in a social media feed which caters to engagement.

So we at Ground News serve both those needs, through both those models, with two clearly labeled and divided feeds. One is Top Stories and the other one is My Feed. The Top Stories is more. … there’s a legacy model of, here are universally important news events that you should know about, no matter which walk of life you come from, no matter where you are located, no matter where your interests lie. And the second being My Feed, which is the recognition that ultimately people will care more about certain interests, certain topics, certain issues than other ones. So it is a nod to that personalization within the limits of not delving down to the same spiral of filter bubbles.

Steven Cherry There’s only so many reporters at a newspaper. There’s only so many minutes we have in a day to read the news. So in all of the coverage, for example, of the protests this past month—coverage we should be grateful for of an issue that deserves all the prominence it can get—a lot of other stories got lost. For example, there was a dramatic and sudden announcement of a reduction in our U.S. troop count in Germany. [Note: This episode was recorded June 18, 2020 — Ed.] I happened to catch that story in the New York Times myself. But it was a pretty small headline, buried pretty far down. It was covered in your weekly newsletter, though. I take it you see yourself as having a second mission besides one-sided news. The problem of under-covered news.

Sukh Singh Yes, we do, and that’s been a realization as we’ve made the journey of Ground News. It wasn’t something that we recognized from the onset, but something that we discovered as we were … as our throughput of news increased. We spoke about the problem of filter bubbles. And we initially thought the problem was bias. The problem was that a news event happens, some real concrete event happens in the real world, and then it is passed on as information through various news outlets, each one spinning it or at least wording it in a way that aligned to either their core agenda or to the likings of their audience. More and more, we found that the problem isn’t just bias and spin, it’s also the mission.

So if we look at the wide swath of left-leaning and right-leaning publications, news publications, in America today … If we were to go to the home page of two publications fairly wide apart on the political spectrum, you would not just find the same news stories with different headlines or different lenses, but an entirely different set of news stories. So much so—you mentioned our newsletter to the Blindspot report—in the Blindspot report. We pick each week five to six stories that were covered massively on one side of the political spectrum but entirely omitted from the other.

So in this case—the event that you mentioned about the troop withdrawal from Germany—it did go very unnoticed by certain parts of the political spectrum. So as a consumer, as a consumer who wants to be informed, going to one or two news sources, no matter how valuable, no matter how rigorous they are, will inevitably result in very large parts of the news out there that will be emitted from your field of view. It’s a secondary conversation, whether that’s whether if you’re going to the right set of publications or not. But what a more primary and more concerning conversation is: how do you communicate with your neighbor when they’re coming from a completely different set of news stories and a different worldview informed by them?

Steven Cherry The name Ground News seems to be a reference to the idea that there’s a ground truth. There are ground truths in science and engineering; it would be wonderful, for example, if we could do some truly random testing for coronavirus and get the ground truth on rates of infection. But are there ground truths in the news business anymore? Or are there only counterbalancings of partial truths?

Sukh Singh That’s a good question. I wouldn’t be as cynical to say as that there’s no news publications out there reporting what they truly believe to be the ground truth. But we do find ourselves in a world where … in a world of court counterbalances. We do turn on the TV news networks and we do see a set of three talking heads with a moderator in the middle and differing opinions on either side. So what we do, at Ground News—as you said, the reference to the name—is try to have that flat, even playing field where different perspectives can come and make their case.

So our aspiration is always to take the—whether that’s the ground truth, whether that’s in the world of science or in the world philosophy, whatever you want to call an atomic fact—is, take the real event and then have dozens, typically, on average, we have about 20 different news perspectives, local, national, international, left, right, all across the board covering the same news event. And are our central thesis is that the ultimate solution is reader empowerment, that no publication or technology can truly come to the conclusions for a person. And there’s perhaps a “shouldn’t” in there as well. So our mission really is to take the different news perspectives, present them on an even playing field to the user, to our subscribers, and then allow them to come to their own conclusion.

Steven Cherry So without getting entirely philosophical about this, it seems to me that—let’s say in the language of Plato’s Republic and the allegory of the cave—you’re able to help us look at more than just the shadows that are projected on the wall of the cave. We get to see all of the different people projecting the shadows, but we’re still not going to get to the Platonic forms of the actual truth of what’s happening in the world. Is that fair to say?

Sukh Singh Yes. Keeping with that allegory, I would say that our assertion is not that every single perspective is equally valid. That’s not a value judgment view that we ever make. We don’t label the left-right-moderate biases on any news publication or a platform. We actually source them from three arms-length nonprofit agencies that have the mission of labeling news publications by their demonstrated bias. So we aggregate and use those as labels in our platform. So we never pass a value judgment on any perspective. But my hope personally and ours as a company really is that some perspectives are getting you closer to the glimpse of the outside rather than just being another shadow on the wall. The onus really is on the reader to be able to say which perspective or which coverage they think most closely resembles what the ground truth is.

Steven Cherry I think that’s fair enough. And I think I would also be fair to add that, even for issues for which there really isn’t a pairing of two opposing sides—for example, climate change, responsible journalists pretty much ignore the idea of there being no climate change—but still, it’s important for people politically to understand that there are people out there who have not accepted climate change and that they’re still writing about it and still sharing views and so forth. And so it seems to me that what you’re doing is shining a light on that aspect of it.

Sukh Singh Absolutely, and one of our key aspirations and our mission is to enable people to have those conversations. So even if you are 100 percent convinced that you are going to credible news publications and you’re getting the most vetted and journalistically rigorous news coverage that is available on the free market, it may still be that you might not be able to reach across the aisle or just go next door and talk to your neighbor or your friend, who is living in a very different … different world view. Better or worse, again, we won’t pass judgment, but just having a more expanded scope of news stories that come into your field of view, on your radar, does enable you to have those conversations, even if you feel some of your peers may be misguided.

Steven Cherry The fundamental problem in news is that there are financial incentives for aggregators like Google and Facebook and for the news sources themselves to keep us in the bubbles that we’re in, feeding us only stories that fit our world view and giving us extreme versions of the news instead of more moderate ones. You yourself noted that with Facebook and other social networks, the user does no work in those cases. Using Ground News is something you have to do actively. Do you ever fear that it’s just a sort of Band-Aid that we can place on this gaping social wound?

Sukh Singh So let me deal with that in two parts, the first part is the financial sustainability of journalism. There certainly is a crisis there. And then I think we can have another of several more of these conversations about the financial sustainability in journalism and solutions to that crisis.

But one very easily identifiable problem is the reliance on advertising. I think a lot of news publications all too willingly started publicizing their content on the Internet to increase their reach and any advertising revenue that they could get off of that from Facebook, sorry, from Google and later Facebook, was incremental revenue to their print subscription. And they were, on the whole, very chipper to get incremental revenue by using the Internet. As we’ve seen, that problem has become a more and more of a stranglehold on news publications and media publications in general, where they’re trying to find a fight for these ad dollars. And the natural end of that, that competition is sensationalism and clickbait. That’s speaking to the financial sustainability in journalism there.

I mean, the path we’ve chosen to go down—exactly for that reason—is to charge subscriptions directly to our users. So we have thousands of paying subscribers now paying a dollar a month or ten dollars a year to access the features on Ground News. And that’s a nominal price point. But it also has an ulterior motive to that. It really is about habit-building and getting people to pay for news again. There are many of us have forgotten over the last couple of decades that news paying for news, which almost used to be that the same as paying for electricity or water, that sense of having to pay for news, has disappeared. We’re trying to revive that, which again, will hopefully pay dividends down the line for financial sustainability in journalism.

In terms of being a Band-Aid solution, we do think there is more of a movement for people accepting the responsibility to do the work, to inform themselves, which is direct and stands in direct contrast to the social media feed, which I think most of us have come to distrust, especially in recent years. There was a, I believe, Reuters study two years ago that showed that 2013 was the first year where people went to Facebook for their news, fewer people than to Facebook for their news in twenty eighteen than they did in the year before. And that was the first time in a decade. So I do think there’s a recognition of that. There’s a recognition a social media feed is no longer a viable news delivery mechanism. So people we do see come doing that little bit of work and on our part, we make it as accessible as possible here. Your question reminds me of the kind of adage that as a consumer, if you’re not the customer, you’re the product. And that really is the divide using a free social media feed as opposed to paying for a news delivery mechanism.

Steven Cherry Ground News is actually a service of your earlier startup Snapwise. Do you want to say a little bit about it, what it does.

Sukh Singh My co-founder was a former NASA engineer of NASA’s satellite engineer who worked on earth observation satellites. So she was working on a constellation of satellites that went across the planet every 24 hours and mapped every square foot of the planet for literally the ground truth, what was happening everywhere on the planet. And once she left her space career and she and I was starting to talk about the impact of technology in journalism, we realized that if we can map the entire planet every 24 hours and have an undeniable record of what what’s happening in the world, why can’t we have the same in the news industry? So our earliest iteration of what is now Ground News was much more focused on citizen journalism and getting folks to use their phones to communicate what was happening in the world around them and getting that firsthand data into the information stream, which we consume as news consumers.

If this is starting to sound like Twitter, we ran into several of the same drawbacks, especially when it came to news integrity and verifying the facts and making sure that what people were using as information really was to them to the same grade as professional journalists. And more and more, we realized we couldn’t diminish the role of professional journalists in delivering what the news is. So we started to advocate more and more vetted, credible news publications from across the world. And before we knew it, we had fifty thousand different unique sources of news, local, national, international, left-to-right, all the way down from your town newspaper to you to a giant multi-national press wire service like Thomson Reuters. We were taking all those different news sources and putting them in the same platform. So so that’s really been our evolution, as people trying to solve some of these problems in the journalistic industry.

Steven Cherry How do you identify publications as being on the left or on the right?

Sukh Singh As we started aggregating more and more news sources, we got over to the 10,000 mark. And before we knew what we were up to 50,000 news sources that we were covering. It’s humanly impossible for our small team or imagine even a much, much larger team to really carefully go and label each of them. So we’ve taken that from a number of news monitoring agencies whose mission and entire purpose as organizations is to review and review news publications.

So we use three different ones today. Media Bias Fact Check, AllSides, as well as Ad Fontes Media and all three of these, I would call them rating agencies, if you want to use the stock market analogy, that sort of rate, the political leanings and factual sort of demonstrated factuality of these news organizations. We take that as inputs. We aggregate them. But you do make exactly their original labels available on our platform, to use an analogy from the movie world, where we’re sort of like Metacritic, aggregating ratings from IMDb and Rotten Tomatoes and different platforms and making that all transparently available for consumers.

Steven Cherry You’re based in Canada, in Kitchener, which is a small city about an hour from Toronto. I think Americans think of Canada as having avoided some of the extremisms of the U.S. I mean, other than maybe burning down the White House a couple of centuries ago, it’s been a pretty easy-going get-along kind of place. Do you think being Canadian and looking at the U.S. from a bit of a distance contributed to what you’re doing?

Sukh Singh We had I don’t think we’ve had a belligerent reputation since since the War of 1812. As Canadians, we do enjoy a generally nice-person kind of stereotype. We are, as you said, at arm’s length. And sitting’s not quite a safe distance away, but across the border from everything that happens in the US, but with frequent trips down and just being deeply integrating with the United States as as a country, we do get a very, very close view on what’s happening.

North of the border, we do have our own political … I mean, we do have our own political system to deal with all of its workings and all of its ins and outs. But in terms of where we’ve really seen Ground News deliver value, it certainly has been in the United States. That is are both our biggest market and our largest set of subscribers by far.

Steven Cherry Thank you so much for giving us this time today and explaining a service that’s really providing an essential function in this chaotic news political world.

Sukh Singh Thanks, Steven.

Steven Cherry We’ve been speaking with Sukh Singh, CTO and co-founder of Ground News, an app that helps break us out of our filter bubbles and tries to provide a 360-degree view of the news.

Our audio engineering was by Gotham Podcast Studio in New York. Our music is by Chad Crouch.

Radio Spectrum is brought to you by IEEE Spectrum, the member magazine of the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers.

For Radio Spectrum, I’m Steven Cherry.

Note: Transcripts are created for the convenience of our readers and listeners. The authoritative record of IEEE Spectrum’s audio programming is the audio version.

We welcome your comments on Twitter (@RadioSpectrum1 and @IEEESpectrum) and Facebook.

This interview was recorded June 18, 2020.

Resources

Spotify, Machine Learning, and the Business of Recommendation Engines

https://mediabiasfactcheck.com/

AllSides

Ad Fontes Media

“Beware Online Filter Bubbles” (TED talk)

The Filter Bubble: How the New Personalized Web Is Changing What We Read and How We Think, by Eli Pariser (Penguin, 2012)

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