New data visualizations give a startling picture of online activity during the latest conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. And they reveal just how much online media and social networks help us to create our own information bubbles, customized to reinforce our political beliefs.
[Image Source: U.S. State Department]
Gilad Lotan is the chief data scientist at betaworks, which has launched high-profile companies that include SocialFlow and bitly. Looking at Lotan's network graph of Twitter traffic from his blog i love data, I can't help but feel that we really are living in a version of The Matrix. The media constructs our reality and we're plugged into it 24/7. Except here, in theory, we have the freedom to make our own decisions.
In Lotan's view, however, that's a big part of the problem:
Not only is there much more media produced, but it is coming at us at a faster pace, from many more sources. … the landscape is much more nuanced, and highly personalized. We construct a representation of our interest by choosing to follow or like specific pages. The more we engage with certain type of content, the more similar content is made visible in our feeds.
If you're rooting for Israel, you might have seen videos of rocket launches by Hamas adjacent to Shifa Hospital. Alternatively, if you're pro-Palestinian, you might have seen the following report on an alleged IDF sniper who admitted (on Instagram) to murdering 13 Gazan children. Israelis and their proponents are likely to see IDF videos such as this one detailing arms and tunnels found within mosques passed around in their social media feeds, while Palestinian groups are likely to pass around images displaying the sheer destruction caused by IDF forces to Gazan mosques. One side sees videos of rockets intercepted in the Tel-Aviv skies, and other sees the lethal aftermath of a missile attack on a Gazan neighborhood.
The better we get at modeling user preferences, the more accurately we construct recommendation engines that fully capture user attention. In a way, we are building personalized propaganda engines that feed users content which makes them feel good and throws away the uncomfortable bits.
Lotan has created a network graph representing how Twitter accounts responded to the bombing of a UN school in Beit Hanoun last week. The larger a node, the higher its number of followers. The closer together two nodes, the more connections they share. Different colors represent ideological communities; nodes of the same color are much more inter-connected compared to the rest of the graph.
As the graph reveals, there's quite a gap between the two sides. On the right, there are "pro-Palestinian" groups of activists (in green) as well as a variety of media outlets and journalists (in gray). "The gray cluster of bloggers, journalists and international media entities is closely connected with the group of pro-Palestinian activists, which means that information is much more likely to spread amongst the two," says Lotan, adding that "this structural characteristic of the graph reinforces general Israeli sentiment regarding international media bias."
On the left side, there are "pro-Israeli" groups, media outlets and Israeli public personas, (light blue), as well as American conservative groups, including the Tea Party (dark blue).
As Lotan notes:
There's a clear difference in frame when we compare one side of the graph to the other. None of the information shared is false per se, yet users make deliberate choices about what they choose to amplify. This is a representation of their values, and the values of their connections. Messages passed along in one side of the graph will never reach the other.
The one notable exception in Lotan's graph, serving as a bridge between the two sides, right smack in the middle, is the Israeli newspaper Haaretz.
Why Haaretz? It's been described as a more left-wing version of the New York Times that exists in a twilight zone where it's deemed iconoclastic enough to satisfy Israel's critics yet authoritative enough to appeal to Israel's center-left supporters.
Lotan also expresses concern over the dilemma that the more we engage online media, the more it personalizes itself to fit our political outlooks. He suggests an experiment: Facebook's trending pages aggregate content that are heavily shared across the platform. If you're already logged into Facebook, you'll see a personalized view of the trend, highlighting your friends and their views on the trend. Next, open a separate browser window in "incognito mode" and navigate to the same page. Since the browser has no idea who you are on Facebook, you'll get the raw, unpersonalized feed. See how many differences you notice.
"A healthy democracy is contingent on having a healthy media ecosystem," Lotan observes. "As builders of these online networked spaces, how do we make sure we optimizing not only for traffic and engagement, but also an informed public?"
[Graph images: i love data]