“But Ferguson was Trending in my Feed”

This essay appeared in the Berkman Center's Youth and Media essay collection, “Youth and Online News: Reflections and Perspectives,” which is available for download through SSRN. My contribution is among a great set of pieces that offer insightful, provoking, and out-of-the-box reflections at the intersection of news, digital media, and youth. 

I was at a journalism conference recently where the topic of algorithmic curation came up. One of the speakers cited the comparison between Ferguson trending on Twitter while the Ice Bucket Challenge was all the rage on Facebook. It was held up as an example of how platforms influence and shape news and shape sharing behaviors of their users.

One student in the audience raised her hand, piping up that she contested the premise that Ferguson hadn’t trended on Facebook. “She was originally from St. Louis and all her friends from home had been talking about it, about race, about police violence, about protests. Ferguson was all over her Facebook newsfeed.”

The discrepancy provided an illustrative moment. One the one hand, opinion and data had made claims about how algorithmic filtering practices of platform affect access to news on Facebook. “On the other hand”, a personal experience of the same news event had differed drastically from the larger collective narrative about how news spreads online, and how politically sensitive topics are discussed within youth peer networks on Facebook.

That one student, away from home at school in Milwaukee, hadn’t felt distant from the activities in Ferguson. She was deep in it in her feed. The news was blowing up within her situated sphere of influence. This is how she experienced Ferguson.

Still, she had a hard time conceiving how Ferguson hadn’t made it into the feeds of others on Facebook. She contested the speaker’s claim with her own, situated and personal experience of the algorithmic curation.

Digital Literacy in Context

The greatest challenge we face in addressing the technical platforms that shape our information experiences is in demonstrating the effects between inputs and outputs in the system. Just as news literacy aims to develop skills to “understand a source’s agendas, motivations and backgrounds,” digital literacy needs to do the same of the platforms and their business models and motivations for providing value to consumers. We need tools that not only build diversity and solve for homophily problems, but also introduce us to the underlying editorial structures of these novel information platforms.

Digital news literacy ought to be taught by example and in context. Youth need to understand how algorithms affect their unique experience, not just how they influence everyone’s experience abstractly and in principle. We need more tools that allow youth to interact with the algorithm and see the micro effects of subtle changes from various inputs, like who you follow, what posts you comment on or re-share, and what things you like and click through.

Tools like Floodwatch’s ad tracking database allow us to compare our personal experience to that of others in a shared demographic profile. We could use still more technical interventions to help show variation in personalization.

What can youth learn about the way technical platforms work by comparing and contrasting the trending topics they see on Facebook and Twitter with peers in their network, and with others outside their network? What will they learn about what newsworthiness is in these personalized contexts?

If we take into account the personal, contextual experience of youth in teaching news literacy, we can help them to understand their place in a larger civic discourse around news and access to information by making it grounded, personal and real in the contexts where they get information today.

Ethnography in Youth and Media Research

News literacy goes beyond the sources that youth get information from, and how social media influences their filter bubble. It’s also about developing algorithmic literacy, for understanding the curatorial and editorial role of the platforms they interact with in their media environments.

Ethnographic interview work has vastly expanded our understanding of youth media practices by meeting them where they are and elevating their voices and concerns. Youth news experiences are inherently personalized now, and research methods for understanding those technical experiences must be as well.

Ethnography in Technology Journalism

Ethnographic approaches to knowledge and experience of algorithms should also expand to the media outlets covering our evolving relationship to technology. Journalists can play a role in developing digital literacy for access to information for their audiences by paying attention to and covering grounded, individual interactions with these systems.

That has been my methodological approach to “Living with Data,” the series I developed for Al Jazeera America. In it I examine encounters that illustrate our personal, situated experience of these tools, following reader submissions about our expectations about how these systems work or should work, and what is actually technically happening. The series aims to teach critical digital literacy through examples.

In part, this series was designed to refute the common argument that “I have nothing to hide” or that privacy concerns are too abstract for people to understand their effects. My aim is to illustrate through real experiences how autonomy and privacy are influenced by these sociotechnical systems that govern our access to information. A mission to develop critical digital literacies becomes especially important for a generation that takes Facebook and other social media platforms for granted.

This grounded approach makes the harms, or the surprises of data more personal, and more relatable. So while your experience may be very different from mine, I can begin to understand the inner workings of these algorithmic curatorial decisions because I can grasp the effects at a personal scale. I can compare my experience of Ferguson on Facebook against everyone else’s experience of the Ice Bucket Challenge.

Grounding coverage of these technical stories makes technical subjects more accessible, but also helps to make the individual stakes more present and clear.