The Art of Personalizing Propaganda

Without really understanding how Facebook works, (which posts are visible on my news feed? why don’t I see all of my 2,682 friends’ posts?) I’ve been very worried that I’m stuck in an information silo.


I suspect that Facebook is reinforcing my existing beliefs and biases by only showing me content that is similar to what I’ve “liked” and  “content that makes [me] uncomfortable, is filtered out.”

That’s not what I want — I really do want to see a diversity of opinions and that’s why I’ve added friends who may not share my opinions — but I think I’ve fallen victim to the silo trap.

Thanks to Gilad Lotan, a self-described data visualization geek from NYC, my fears have been confirmed in his intriguing article, Israel, Gaza, War & Data — social networks and the art of personalizing propaganda. Gilad combines super-duper graphics with his analysis of social media algorithms in a very convincing argument that we (those of us using social media like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram) are burying ourselves in propaganda silos. Yikes!

A healthy democracy is contingent on having a healthy media ecosystem.

I joined Facebook reluctantly a few years ago at my nephew’s urging. “Oh Aunt Lora, you’ll be able to share photos with the family!” The magic threshold was probably 200 or 300 friends. Until then, it was boring and I rarely checked it.

Then I began to see the potential.  I could read posts of friends-of-friends, and they could read mine. I focused on my areas of interest (climate change, sustainable development, city planning, politics and the Middle East) and I “liked” pages of interest and began to connect with more people who shared my interests. Gilad writes: “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.”

Now I have “friends” from all over the world — Palestine, Israel, Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Italy, Spain, Turkey, Germany, Austria, UK, France, Sweden, Norway, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Venezuela, and points in between. Most of them I’ve never met in person, but many I have.

I’ve never “unfriended” someone for disagreeing with me, but I suspect several have “unfriended” me. I cherish a diversity of opinions, I just don’t have time for rudeness or disrespect.

Take Egypt last summer for example.

It seemed to me that I had an equal number of “friends” on Facebook who supported the military coup and those who supported President Morsi. I engaged with them all, learning from them all, and drawing my own conclusions. One year later, I see almost nothing about Egypt in my “news feed”.  I know about the ongoing suffering and internal turmoil, and the role Egypt is playing in the miserable siege on Gaza. But my Egyptian Facebook friends have nearly disappeared. Are they dead? Fallen silent due to government censorship? I’m worried.

So back to my silos.

Another Facebook friend from Gaza, someone I met in person during my extended visit, recently opined that “Homogeneous societies or groups are usually conservative and they are putting us at risk and danger! Diversity is power, essential and necessary.”

I think he’s on to something here.

The topic for another blog post, but I think my personalized Facebook has become just a little too homogeneous for comfort. I’m going to search for some new friends from Mongolia.

I highly recommend Israel, Gaza, War & Data — social networks and the art of personalizing propaganda.

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Filed under Media, People

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