By Alex Rochefort
Echo chambers. Political polarization. Personalized news feeds. Facebook algorithms.
Perhaps you are familiar with some of these phrases. Over the past year, all have become closely associated with the state of social media and digital news consumption. They are also central elements of research I completed as a student in the School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs.
During the controversial 2016 presidential campaign, the distortion of information with the advance of the digital age was widely decried as detrimental to the democratic process. Here was a topic I knew I wanted to explore further, and enrolling in the graduate seminar “Strategizing Public Policy” gave me the perfect opportunity to do so.
Influenced by my background as a social media professional, I was curious to examine the role played by automated news feeds when voters go to services like Facebook to learn about political campaigns. “Strategizing Public Policy,” taught by professor Linda Kowalcky, gave students a comprehensive understanding of the public policy process, while also requiring a substantial individual research project. In brief, we were tasked with identifying, documenting, and proposing a solution to an issue of public concern. For the latter, I chose to focus on the operation of hidden, unmonitored algorithms within the social media industry.
Increased polarization has emerged as a major issue in the American political system. According to recent research, Americans are more divided ideologically today than at any time in the last 20 years. At the same time, a growing segment of the population relies on social media for information and opinion concerning the electoral process. Far from providing a source of balanced news, social media serves as a conduit for personalized content that largely reinforces pre-existing tastes and beliefs. The result has been compared to the creation of “echo chambers” that insulate liberals and conservatives alike from exposure to material that might challenge their existing political knowledge and perspectives. Algorithms play a crucial role in this process of news curation by shaping the variety and scope of information delivered to the user.
Over the 12-week course, I approached this topic from a public interest perspective. Ultimately, my final project consisted of two components. First, it documented the phenomenon of social-media-induced political polarization. Second, it outlined a regulatory solution for enhancing algorithmic transparency and the public accountability of social media service providers.
This summer I’ve been fortunate to have the opportunity to present my work at academic conferences in Boston and Toronto. At Boston University, I presented my research at the annual #ScreentimeBU Conference, hosted by the Division of Emerging Media Studies, where the main subject was “Fake News, Real Emotion, & The Mediated Self.” At the end of July, I traveled to Canada to present at The International Conference on Social Media and Society. There, I shared my work in the form of a poster presentation titled Information Bias and Social Media: How Algorithmic Regulation Can Strengthen the Republic. This venue gave me the chance to explore some of the more technical aspects of my proposed regulatory approach and to underscore the need for greater transparency from social media providers. Both conferences provided stimulating learning experiences that brought together likeminded people to discuss ways that social media technologies impact society.
Public policy strategy, research, information sharing, and professional engagement are all fundamental elements of issue advocacy. As I continue with my graduate studies in Communications and in Public Policy at Northeastern, I look forward to building my proficiency in these areas.
Alex Rochefort is a second-year student in the MS in Corporate and Organizational Communication Program. He is also completing coursework in policy analysis at the School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs. Prior to attending graduate school, Alex was a social media professional in the music industry in New York City. In 2015, he received his BS in Music Industry from Northeastern University with a minor in Sociology.
Katie Kalugin (@kkalugz) is a 2018 graduate of our public policy master's program. Currently, she is a Transit Equity Programs Specialist @MBTA. We recently touched base to catch up on her work. More here➡️ cssh.northeastern.ed… pic.twitter.com/EEu2…
"When we are distracted by who we think communities and people are, we make decisions that are bad for ourselves." @BostonAtyia @AllAces_Inc #bebetterdobetter #racialequity #MKOCclimate #NUClimateCourse