Social Media Let Users Stick To Their Preferred News Slant

NPR's Linda Wertheimer speaks to Gilad Lotan, a data scientist who studies social media echo chambers. He looked at how news about the Israel-Gaza conflict has been disseminated.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

The Gaza war isn't just one of rockets and bombs. There's also an information war out there, as you've probably noticed. And much of it is being fought on Twitter and Facebook. A new article in the online magazine Medium says that particularly when it comes to Israel and the Palestinian territories, social media insulates users from opinions that are uncomfortable. Gilad Lotan is a data scientist who wrote that article. And he's with us from our studios in New York. Thank you for joining us.

GILAD LOTAN: Thanks for having me.

WERTHEIMER: So, Gilad, you are saying that social media places us in sort of bubbles - personalized propaganda bubbles. What do they look like? What is a personalized propaganda bubble?

LOTAN: So a personalized bubble, I would say, is an online space where your beliefs and your preferences get reinforced - where you get recommended to follow users that are like users you already follow or you get recommended content to read that's similar to what you've already read. These bubbles are highly effective at just keeping you engaged and keeping you there in the bubble.

WERTHEIMER: Now, in your article, you relate these bubbles - these divided social media interactions - to Gaza and to Israel. Now, when did that come to your attention? You're Israeli-born. You served in the Israel Defense Force. Presumably, you've been following coverage that - of what is happening there. Does that mean that you noticed all of a sudden that you're finding you're not seeing much dissent in coverage that you're seeing?

LOTAN: Correct. I did - I am born in Israel - born and raised - served in the army and sort of moved out of Israel almost 10 years ago. And I think what got me to really almost obsess over this topic over the past few weeks was the fact that everything seemed - this time everything seemed different - so much more intense. So I started going on all these social media sites -places which disseminate information and sort of content that people were sharing, right? My friends, my relatives were sharing all these snippets that they were getting through Facebook public pages. And when I started looking at the data, it's just - it was very clear this incredible separation between the Israeli narrative and then the sort of pro-Palestinian narrative.

WERTHEIMER: Well, now, this is a - it's a fascinating idea. But do you think that social media habits affect views?

LOTAN: We're spending more and more time on social networks. We're getting more and more of our news from social network sites, right - from Twitter, from Facebook. I'd say we used to be able at least to hold our media and editors accountable if there was biased coverage. Right now, we cannot do that. We can only sort of blame ourselves for the content that we're consuming on these networks.

WERTHEIMER: Now, surely if you are watching this from Israel or from Gaza - if you want to look at both sides of an issue or at all sides of an issue, you can do it. I mean, you just - you have to sort of shop around.

LOTAN: So I would say it's much harder than just making an effort.

WERTHEIMER: Really? Why?

LOTAN: Because it's more than just being open-minded. You're in all these spaces that sort of reinforce a certain narrative or a certain frame. When looking at the events and especially when you're in Israel at the thick of it, it is so hard to get away from it. So you get this polarization in Israeli society as well that makes it even tougher to look at the other side.

WERTHEIMER: Gilad Lotan is chief data scientist at Betaworks, a New York startup studio. Thank you very much for talking to us.

LOTAN: Thank you for having me.

WERTHEIMER: You're listening to NPR News.

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