What happens to your Facebook feed when you only like pro-Trump posts?
Sue Gardner is the former executive director of the Wikimedia Foundation and the former head of CBC.ca. She is now based in San Francisco, Calif. During last year's U.S. presidential election, she saw much of the same viewpoint in her social media feeds and decided to conduct an experiment to escape her filter bubble. By creating a new profile and indiscriminately liking all posts from certain pages, Gardner was able to dip her toe into "the hyper partisan far right" and understand more about the prevalence of fake news.
Duncan McCue: You found a way to test your own filter bubble. How did you do that?
Sue Gardner: In the 2016 U.S. presidential election campaign, probably in August of 2016, I was finding that my social media feeds were full of women who were exulting about the possibility that the United States was finally going to have a female president. And it was seeming to me that the conventional news media - The New York Times and The Washington Post and Fox - were also assuming that Clinton was going to win. So I did want to get outside of that bubble and so I created a new persona on Facebook. I made up a new account. It was a 19-year-old woman named Kaitlyn, who I said lived in Hoover, Alabama and worked for T-Mobile. The idea was that I would create someone who didn't have any markers, who was blank and didn't seem to have anything suggesting that she would have any political beliefs. Then I went on to Facebook as her, searched for Donald Trump, found something called Trump for Alabama. I liked it. It shared a bunch of stuff into Kaitlyn's feed and I liked all that stuff.
DM: So you just started liking stuff on this fake profile to see what would happen in Kaitlyn's feed? What did Kaitlyn's feed end up looking like?
SG: Yes and I did it indiscriminately. I just liked everything. I didn't exercise any judgement and what I got was immediately just a huge flood of nonsense. The kind of stuff you've been hearing about on the show. Like I got you know 'Hillary Clinton is a lesbian,' 'Hillary and Bill Clinton have killed 44 people,' 'Hillary is a robot.' She has a personality disorder. She is planning to steal the election. And at that time, I had not seen any of that previously, but we now know that is the classic fake news that flooded the informational landscape mostly through Facebook during that whole campaign.
DM: So what did the experiment tell you?
SG: It told me was that there was a lot of motivated misinformation that was flooding the internet during the 2016 election campaign. And I think in retrospect, since then there has been a ton of investigative journalism and a lot of universities and think tanks have done a bunch of research. And what they have found is there was indeed a lot of new purveyors of hyper partisan political news. Not all of which is fake, but a lot of it is fake. A lot of the sites sprung up in 2014 and afterwards and something like 75 percent of the material produced by those sites is far right and about 25 percent is far left. And so I was dipping my toe into what was the hyper partisan far right, which is a thing that I would not naturally have found, but I did find because I did that wacky experiment.
DM: So how pervasive do you think the problem is then what we've been calling fake news whether it's in the United States or Canada or around the world?
SG: Well we know that it's really pervasive now. We know that because there has been a lot of research done. We know that a lot of people, a lot of researchers have concluded that it did have a determining effect in the U.S. presidential election campaign. There were many contributing factors, but it was an extremely tight race. And so whether it was the Comey letter or gerrymandering; a variety of conditions had to be in place for Donald Trump to have won the Electoral College. Fake news probably was one of those conditions.
We're now finding that it probably played a role in Brexit, that it has played a role in Brazilian politics, in Germany and France and Italy and the Philippines. The U.N. is warning us now that it is helping to fuel the civil war in southern Sudan. And the BBC says that it's helping to fuel the anti-Muslim violence in Myanmar. So it is very prevalent.
All comments have been edited and condensed. To listen to the full interview, click on the audio link above. This online segment was prepared by Ilina Ghosh.