Confirmation Bias and the Feedback Loop of Algorithms

Algorithms are bad for media (and society)

I read a post from Boston University this week on how data is transforming what we read and watch – and I assume listen – throughout media. The changing landscape of media isn’t anything new, but this does seem to be an unintended consequence of having terabytes of data at our fingertips.

In the early days of the internet, as revenue streams started to decrease in traditional media, newsrooms had to cut staff in order for organizations to remain profitable. Inevitably this meant that newsrooms were creating less content. But it wasn’t just that they were creating less content.

They had to make hard decisions around the content they did create. The content they created had to reach the largest audience possible in order to sell advertising and subscriptions.

When I got my first job at a newspaper in 2001 one of the long-time employees would frequently bemoan that we no longer covered family reunions. That kind of coverage went away, and in some way its loss likely played a role in the rise of social media.

Flash forward to today, as Google and Facebook continue to eat up most of the incremental digital advertising dollars, revenue losses are still impacting traditional media. But now, to make things more difficult, another threat has been identified.

Algorithms.

The backbone of search and social media, is changing what, and how content, is being created. And they change. A lot.

Already in 2019 Google has tweaked its algorithm seven times. That’s in addition to 15 times in 2018. Facebook has only made four changes so far in 2019.

No matter how much they claim it’s not true or insist they are immune to it, every newsroom is impacted by these changes. In order for a newsroom to survive in 2019 they have to be. Content is no longer created in a vacuum with the tools of distribution only belonging to a few.

The type of content written, the way it’s written, where it’s distributed – all of it is affected by an algorithm. Some newsrooms, as the Boston University article points out, are even using algorithms to write content.

Algorithms have become a necessary evil. The shear volume content created every day makes it so. Without them the chance of your content getting found on the internet is slim-to-none. With them newsrooms are reluctantly giving over more control to outside forces and, by extension, run the risk of allowing for more confirmation bias.

Personally, I think confirmation bias will have the most devastating long-term impact on media and society at large. When asked I know most news consumers will say they want a center-of-the-road, fact-based, well-sourced story. Unfortunately what users want and what they actually engage with are frequently two different things. It’s why your newsfeed is made up of stories from the political edges of news sites and not Associated Press and Reuters.

media bias chart - ad fontes media
Souce: Ad Fontes Media Bias Chart Vision 4.0

In all but the most rare cases, in order for a piece of content to get found it has to produce some kind of engagement. In media engagement is one of those terms that isn’t anything, but can refer to whatever you want it to in order prove your point of view.

Engagement can be page views, shares, likes, tweets, follows, time on page, anything. It’s whatever you want it to be so you can say, “Hey, someone interacted with this content is some way, which means it’s great!”

In turn, the more engagement you get, the more your content gets found. This creates a self-sustaining feedback loop.

The hard part is getting that feedback loop started. You have to find that initial engagement. Unfortunately, thanks to algorithms, the easiest way to get the feedback loop started is to push content away from the center to either extreme of the political landscape.

The algorithms reward this engagement by pushing the content higher up, even to those users who consider themselves moderate. All that we end up seeing is content from the edges, giving us the impression that the world must be this way, and pushing us away from the other side.

This week’s links

I’ve grown tired of hearing Silicon Valley tech/media CEOs talk about how there are changing the world, while at the same time insisting nothing is there fault, but this week on the Recode Decode podcast Kara Swisher spoke with Reddit CEO Steve Huffman, which is an interesting conversation. He discussed the idea around quarantining subreddits instead of banning them and Reddit as a social media/media/technology company.

You can listen here.

Remember when Mic was the next great media brand that would rule the world? Mashable has a good article on its fall that you can read here.

Finally, Vulture did a story around Apple’s podcast strategy.

Weekend Media Threads May 25, 2019

Automate Twitter, social media will get … better? and an iPad with your news subscription

By far my favorite story from the past week is from Poynter – and it’s something I’ve been suggesting for several years. Finally a newsroom (or audience team in this case) has decided to stop wasting time posting to Twitter.

Oh happy day!

And not some small weekly in the middle of nowhere. We’re talking a major metro. The Philadelphia Inquirer.

I think this is fantastic news and I hope other newsrooms find the internal backing to do the same. Posting manually to Twitter is a complete waste of time for journalists. The entire process should be automated.

In the Poynter article Kim Fox, the Inquirer’s managing editor for audience and innovation, said the audience team used to spend 80% of its time on Twitter for a 2-3% return in referral traffic.

Because this is an enormous waste of time – seriously, 80% of the team’s time!?! – Kim had her team automate Twitter posting and found the same return in referral traffic. If you’re surprised by this you either don’t work in digital media, or you do and don’t pay attention to your referral traffic.

Take a deep dive into your own site’s referral traffic. I’m willing to bet that either search engine, Bing and Yahoo, drives more traffic than Twitter. But when was the last to you looked at these statistics?

The truth is, Twitter is not a traffic driver. It’s really good at making noise, but has little to no impact to a media website’s traffic.

So, what do Kim’s audience team do with its new found time? And 80% is a lot of time. According to Poynter they:

Streamlining branded Facebook pages down from two to one, decreasing posting by 30% and increasing referral traffic by 30%

Growing the Inquirer’s Instagram account by 87%

Redeveloping newsletter strategy from automated to written by staff

Launching a smart speaker briefing, which led to Fox building out an innovation team

Adding SEO and analytics work into everything they do

Check out the full article here

And speaking of the Inquirer’s audience team, check out this Q&A Better News did with Kim and Ross Maghielse, the manager of audience development.

Social media will get better?

In an interview with Kara Swisher on Recode Decode Twitter’s co-founder Ev Williams said social media will get better, eventually. I don’t have much to say about the interview. I listened to the episode when it came out and it’s more of the same. All of these tech-bros just parrot each other, but I think this interview is worth listening to.

You can read the transcript on Vox.

How about an iPad with your newspaper subscription

We’ve seen this before, but the publisher of the Democrat-Gazette in northwest Arkansas, is giving print subscribers iPads in an attempt to convert them to digital subscribers.

I don’t hate the idea of buying iPads for print subscribers in an attempt to convert them to paid digital subscribers. But I do think it’s a gross misunderstanding of the audience and why they subscribe to print, and how difficult it is to engage readers on the platform and turn them into long-term digital subscribers.

According to the article, in March 2018 the paper began the experiment with 200 subscribers. They were offered an iPad at the current print delivery rate, plus a personal training session, and print delivery stopped about two months later. The publisher claims that 70% (140) of these converted.

I think any of us would take a 70% conversion rate, but what the article doesn’t mention is retention over the next year and how this compares to the rate at which they were retaining print subscriptions. And don’t get me started on price elasticity in digital versus print. I would really like to see this data because that’s what will tell the real story, and whether the experiment will turn a profit in 2020 as the publisher hopes.

Personally, I hope it works, but I just don’t think this is how core newspaper readers want their news. No matter how great you make the experience, it’s not the same as the tradition of a morning newspaper. Which is what core newspaper readers want.

I think this would work better as a strategy going after specific segments of existing subscribers, tech-enthusiasts for example, and new subscribers. Introduce these folks into the digital ecosystem and never allow them to build a print tradition.

And while the publisher is considering the costs of the iPads as the main expense, there isn’t much talk of an ongoing marketing campaign, which becomes even more critical on digital platforms where, in addition to your product, you’ve now supplied you core subscribers with a device to gain easy access to the products and platforms that have assisted in deteriorating your product. This of course depends on the market, but I’m assuming most of the folks in this particular area getting these did not previously own an iPad.

Again, I don’t hate the idea, but I would like to see the ongoing marketing, conversion and engagement plan. This just feels like a reaction by a publisher who is out of touch and I think there are better ways to spend $12 million bucks.