Sheryl Sandberg says Facebook is less of a filter bubble than traditional news outlets

Trying to fix Facebook’s battered image.
Trying to fix Facebook’s battered image.
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Facebook broadens people’s views, as opposed to shrinking them, Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer told Axios’ Mike Allen in a live interview today (Oct. 12). The conversation was part of her tour of Washington DC to address pressure from lawmakers about Russian-bought ads on the platform during the 2016 election.

In answer to Allen’s question about whether Facebook contributes to our “filter bubbles,” Sandberg said, “What Facebook does is it increases our ability to stay in touch with our ‘weak ties,'” giving as an example her high school friends, whom she wouldn’t be in touch with otherwise. 

On Facebook, 23% of your friends have a stated ideology that’s the opposite from yours. So it’s not 50, but 23 is pretty good. Compared to what you would see going to news outlets or what you would see without Facebook, people see, on average, broader views. What that doesn’t mean is that you can go to your Newsfeed, and it is perfectly balanced—it’s not—but compared to what you would otherwise see, Facebook broadens the views, doesn’t shrink them.

The statistic she is referring to—the 23%—seems to come from a study done by Facebook data scientists in 2015 and published by the journal Science, which found that “while partisans tend to maintain relationships with like-minded contacts, on average more than 20 percent of an individual’s Facebook friends who report an ideological affiliation are from the opposing party, leaving substantial room for exposure to opposing viewpoints.” Quartz reached out to Facebook to confirm the origins of this figure.

The Science study, which found that Facebook only modestly increases political polarization, raised controversy when it was published. It was criticized by researchers for, among other things, its “small and skewed” subset of users as a sample size and it’s undeservedly defensive framing. Other studies, like one in 2014 from the Pew Research Center showed that consistent conservatives are more likely than other groups to be exposed to Facebook content that aligns with their beliefs. A 2017 working paper from researchers at Brown University finds the largest increase in polarization in groups least likely to use social media.

In the Axios interview, Allen focused on Facebook’s role in the 2016 election. Sandberg consistently avoided answering questions on whether the targeting of Russian-linked ads overlapped with targeting Donald Trump supporters, but said Facebook would release information on ad targeting along with the ads in question, and help Congress and law enforcement in their investigations of improprieties during the election.

When asked about whether Facebook owed Americans an apology for the abuses on its platform, she said: “It’s not just that we apologize—we’re angry, we’re upset,” adding that what the company owes the US is “determination” because “our values are under threat” and the company is determined to defend them.

The debate about how significantly social media platforms contribute to a divisive political climate will surely rage on for years to come.