Ten years ago, I created a fake Facebook profile: a story of algorithms and bubbles

Image by (the amazing) Mark Fishbourne @ Marketoonist

Leaving Facebook made me happy.

I am not the kind of person to try and proselytise others, but I have to confirm what many say, that leaving public social media – as opposed to private social media e.g. Whatsapp or Telegram – made me happier, gave me a lot of time to do more useful stuff, and made me generally less angry, thus I cannot but recommend it.

But this is not a story on how I’m better than you because I don’t have Facebook. This is a story about what I call bubble bias, and better scholars than me call Filter bubble.

Let’s start from the beginning: who we are is heavily determined by the situation we grew in. If I was born a couple hundred miles more to the South, I’d not be Italian; I’d not be European; I’d speak another language; my family’d not be Catholic. My whole system of beliefs would be different: religion, politics, what I love in people surrounding me, what I despise of people I don’t like…everything.

Besides proving the deeply loaded argument that all knowledge might be inherently biased, at a lower level one can deduct it as the cause of some issues when it comes to the web, which is our field of interest here. All that we see around us, both off- and online, is served to us based on things that we already like. You know when they say ‘get out of your confort zone’? This is why. If you don’t, you’ll always listen, talk to, and be surrounded by voices that agree with you: this will lead you to the false belief that everyone agrees with you, thus you must be right.

Confirmation bias, and algorithms

We are bombarded by information. Every second, the stream of it to which we have access is absurdly big: that’s also why our attention span is decreasing with time, as we don’t have the time to process each datum that our senses throw at our brain. Among all of this information, we are selective: we must be.

But there’s another level of selection that most people (the general public) is generally not aware of: the means we use to feed our brains (Google, Facebook, Twitter, most modern online newspapers, etc.) operate an active selection of what info should reach us. Their algorithms work like this: Enrico liked/clicked on/dwelled on X, thus I will provide him with as many things I can find that are similar to X. The better the algorithm (and their quality is nowadays based on how good their AI is), the better the results that will be tossed at us. The better the results, the more money they make, based on their monetisation model.

So algorithms decide what we see, and we decide what the algorithm should show us; in a recursive pattern, we will see the same info, the same sources, more of the connections that share their views with us, and so on. This creates a bubble around us. We are biased, everyone around us seemingly agreeing with what we already believe.

Needless to say, this is a big problem with modern society. I blame it on the lack of political intervention on the web, which’s been left largely lawless for thirty years now. It’s not up to the citizen, nor to private companies, to limit functions or impose regulations. So, back to my fake Facebook account.

It’s over 10 years old, I set it up in the context of buying links for SEO purposes. So my avatar has had a 10 years long life. During this period, purely for fun, I gave to…him? it? mmm…I got in touch with people I’d never get in touch with, followed a football team that I don’t support, liked movies and series I know nothing about, and so on. I needed my person to look real, have friends and interests. In order to do so, I thought it’d be easier to get into the populist world. I follow populist politicians and local authorities of the place where my guy ‘lives’; I ‘go to’ events at the most popular clubs in the area, follow DJs and other relevant stuff. I am as much a bland sheep as I can think of. So basically my guy is a superficial jerk.

And I noticed something: after ten years following Salvini, all of your feed will be univocal; FB will propose people in the ‘people you might know’ section, who are all like that. Only, for them it’s real. They invite him to groups and pages, always of the same kind. They comment each other, making a lot of noise with dozens of comments per day. They fund civil movements of hatred, racism, and populism. They befriend accounts of clearly fake horny pornstars who want to have sex with them. They comment on their pics, drooling. It’s just a few people, I don’t spend too much time on my guy to expand his network, but they are clearly very connected with each other. They confirm each other’s ideas as a dog chasing its tail.

It’s mesmerising: I have this secret perversion when I’m bored, to log my avatar and see the madness that surrounds him. At first, I couldn’t believe what people would post: if it was my own old FB account, I’d never be reached by that! People who truly believe that the pandemic is caused by Obama; people who propose that Italy should split in 6 macroregions, joined in a confederation; flatearthers (remember the one final argument against the Flat Earth Theory: if the Earth was flat, cats would’ve pushed everything off it already. Checkmate!). I’d have no exposure at all, if it wasn’t for my avatar.

My perversion is being able to escape my bubble: not only does it makes me feel good about myself (yeah I need confirmation, sue me), on the other it’s interesting to see things that, otherwise, I’d never see.