🚗 🚙 Turn your trusty old car into trustworthy journalism Learn more
Diptendu Dutta/AFP/Getty Images

We did the numbers on our filter bubbles

Tony Wagner Nov 20, 2018
Diptendu Dutta/AFP/Getty Images

How are we supposed to get smarter together if we can’t even see each other?

It’s the cost of living in an online filter bubble. Social networks are programmed to serve up content they think will appeal to you, and that has the potential to create a feedback loop that keeps diverse voices out of your media diet.

It’s not just politics either: Your family background, your career, your age, your online shopping habits can all contribute to the algorithmic walls that platforms build up around us as we click around online.

To figure out what our particular echo chambers look like, and maybe how to get out of them, we called up visual journalist Jon Keegan. He worked on the Wall Street Journal’s Red Feed, Blue Feed project, which shows you the very different realities partisans see when they open Facebook. We handed him a whole bunch of Kai Ryssdal’s and Molly Wood’s Twitter data to see if we couldn’t start to pop these bubbles by — how else? — doing the numbers.

Keegan wrote more about the methodology he used in our Twitter audit. Here are a few highlights:

They both tweet a lot

There was a lot to work with: Kai and Molly have both been on Twitter a long time, since 2009 and 2007, respectively. Kai is more of a power user, averaging 12.8 tweets a day, retweeting a lot and using TweetDeck, which Keegan describes as “mainlining” the site. Molly averages around 5.7 tweets per day, but she follows more than three times as many accounts as Kai and “likes” tweets frequently.

Their top tweets are short and sweet

They’re also both from last fall. Molly’s most-retweeted tweet said what a lot of people were thinking about 2017’s big data breach story, whereas Kai was fact-checking “60 Minutes.”

In fact, all of Kai’s top three tweets are fact-checking someone. In two of his top five he tells his followers to “think about that.” Molly’s top tweets were more varied, with bon mots about sports and personal anecdotes.

Molly tweets about work a lot, and political topics have taken over Kai’s feed

As the host of Marketplace Tech, Molly’s busiest Twitter days were amid big tech news: a Google IO event, an Apple keynote and Mark Zuckerberg’s congressional testimony. (In the charts below, Molly is blue and Kai is green.)

Meanwhile, all three of Kai’s most active days on Twitter came amid Republican presidential debates back in 2015.

Their use of hashtags paints a similar picture: Molly’s most-used hashtags were centered on tech news events and shows she’s worked on, like “Buzz Out Loud” and, of course, Make Me Smart.

Kai uses hashtags when he’s live-tweeting political events, like presidential debates and the State of the Union.

They follow a lot of journalists

They’re both journalists, and journalists are heavy Twitter users generally, so this makes sense. Still, when you go through all the accounts Kai and Molly follow and tally up who’s who, as Keegan did, it’s striking to see just how many reporters they both see when they open the app.

Also striking: Molly follows 24 “fun” accounts. Kai follows just one. Aw.

Those journalists are for well-regarded, mainstream outlets — but few, if any, conservative ones

Keegan uses machine learning to find where all those reporters work and to trace other accounts where Kai and Molly get their news. (You can read more about how on his post.) The New York Times is near the top of both lists, along with NPR and both hosts’ current or former employers.

Both lists lean a little left and contain very few actual policymakers.

As part of our exercise, Keegan identified a few Twitter lists that could be useful for anyone who wants to break out of their online echo chamber: Here are a couple from Slate that lean right and left. Plus, C-SPAN has convenient lists of all U.S. senators, CongressCabinet members and governors, plus a list of foreign leaders.

How are you planning to pop your filter bubble? Let us know in the comments or shoot us at email and makemesmart@marketplace.org.

There’s a lot happening in the world.  Through it all, Marketplace is here for you. 

You rely on Marketplace to break down the world’s events and tell you how it affects you in a fact-based, approachable way. We rely on your financial support to keep making that possible. 

Your donation today powers the independent journalism that you rely on. For just $5/month, you can help sustain Marketplace so we can keep reporting on the things that matter to you.