What you need to know about Facebook’s “proof” that it’s not a political echo chamber

When nearly half of US internet users are getting their political news from Facebook, it rightfully raises many worries. Chief among them is that Facebook’s powerful algorithm creates a “filter bubble” in which users mainly see posts they agree with, reinforcing the heavily polarized nature of American political discourse.

In research recently published in Science, researchers from Facebook and the University of Michigan suggest that the news feed algorithm is less influential than some people have made it out to be. Instead, they claim it is mostly users themselves who, through their decisions about what to click on or who to be friends with, are responsible for the creation of any ideological bubbles.

Don’t be so quick to let Facebook off the hook, though. Despite being published in a reputable science journal, the researchers’ conclusion appears to be questionable.

Read more on Quartz, published May 11, 2015.

Image by nate bolt under CC-BY-SA.

Curious Bends – big tobacco, internet blindness, spoilt dogs and more

1. Despite the deadly floods in Uttarakhand in 2013, the govt ignores grave environmental reports on the new dams to be built in the state

“The Supreme Court asked the Union environment ministry to review six specific hydroelectric projects on the upper Ganga basin in Uttarakhand. On Wednesday, the ministry informed the apex court that its expert committee had checked and found the six had almost all the requisite and legitimate clearances. But, the ministry did not tell the court the experts, in the report to the ministry, had also warned these dams could have a huge impact on the people, ecology and safety of the region, and should not be permitted at all on the basis of old clearances.” (6 min read, businessstandard.com)

2. At the heart of the global-warming debate is the issue of energy poverty, and we don’t really have a plan to solve the problem

“Each year, human civilization consumes some 14 terawatts of power, mostly provided by burning the fossilized sunshine known as coal, oil and natural gas. That’s 2,000 watts for every man, woman and child on the planet. Of course, power isn’t exactly distributed that way. In fact, roughly two billion people lack reliable access to modern energy—whether fossil fuels or electricity—and largely rely on burning charcoal, dung or wood for light, heat and cooking.” (4 min read, scientificamerican.com)

3. Millions of Facebook users have no idea they’re using the internet

“Indonesians surveyed by Galpaya told her that they didn’t use the internet. But in focus groups, they would talk enthusiastically about how much time they spent on Facebook. Galpaya, a researcher (and now CEO) with LIRNEasia, a think tank, called Rohan Samarajiva, her boss at the time, to tell him what she had discovered. “It seemed that in their minds, the Internet did not exist; only Facebook,” he concluded.” (8 min read, qz.com)

+ The author of the piece, Leo Mirani, is a London-based reporter for Quartz.

4. The lengths to which big tobacco industries will go to keep their markets alive is truly astounding

“Countries have responded to Big Tobacco’s unorthodox marketing with laws that allow government to place grotesque images of smoker’s lung and blackened teeth on cigarette packaging, but even those measures have resulted in threats of billion-dollar lawsuits from the tobacco giants in international court. One such battle is being waged in Togo, where Philip Morris International, a company with annual earnings of $80 billion, is threatening a nation with a GDP of $4.3 billion over their plans to add the harsh imagery to cigarette boxes, since much of the population is illiterate and therefore can’t read the warning labels.” (18 min video, John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight via youtube.com)

5. Hundreds of people have caught hellish bacterial infections and turned to Eastern Europe for a century-old viral therapy

“A few weeks later, the Georgian doctors called Rose with good news: They would be able to design a concoction of phages to treat Rachel’s infections. After convincing Rachel’s doctor to write a prescription for the viruses (so they could cross the U.S. border), Rose paid the Georgian clinic $800 for a three-month supply. She was surprised that phages were so inexpensive; in contrast, her insurance company was forking over roughly $14,000 a month for Rachel’s antibiotics.” (14 min read, buzzfeed.com)

Chart of the Week

“Deshpande takes her dog, who turned six in February, for a walk three times every day. When summers are at its peak, he is made to run on the treadmill inside the house for about half-hour. Zuzu’s brown and white hair is brushed once every month, he goes for a shower twice a month—sometimes at home, or at a dog spa—and even travels with the family to the hills every year. And like any other Saint Bernard, he has a large appetite, eating 20 kilograms of dog food every month. The family ends up spending Rs5,000 ($80)-7,000 ($112) every month on Zuzu, about double the amount they spend on Filu, a Cocker Spaniel.” (4 min read, qz.com)

Are all of WhatsApp’s 55 employees millionaires now? Not just yet

Facebook has just acquired the mobile messenger service WhatsApp for US$19 billion. Launched in 2009 by two former Yahoo employees, in just over four years WhatsApp has grown to 420m monthly users.

Why is it so popular? Founder Jan Koum told the New York Times in 2012, “We are providing a richness of experience and an intimacy of communication that e-mail and phone calls simply can’t compare with.”

Facebook has been pushing its own messenger service to its users, but without much success. Markos Zachariadis at Warwick Business School, said, “Facebook’s purchase of WhatsApp is in many ways an admission of defeat.”

The explosion in the number of smartphones in recent years has also seen a boom in instant messaging services. Popular services such as WeChat, Line and Viber each have more than 100m users. WhatsApp tops that chart in not just number of users but also engagement. With the per-day volume at 19 billion messages sent and 34 billion received, the messaging service will soon trump the total global SMS volume.

According to Sotirios Paroutis, also at Warwick Business School, Mark Zuckerberg is out to make Facebook a truly mobile company with Instagram and WhatsApp. “In the past WhatsApp founders have been vocal in their objection to be acquired by a larger firm. So beyond their own reward package, the promise to keep WhatsApp as an independent service seems to have helped bring the two parties together,” he said.

Show me the money

With only 55 employees, WhatsApp’s $19-billion valuation could, in an alternate universe where each employee was given an equal share, fetch US$350m per employee. This is nearly five times what employees of Instagram would have got when that company was bought out for US$1 billion in 2012.

WhatsApp8-01

While founders take away big chunks of the proceeds from such deals, with so few employees the windfall can still make many others rich. But in some cases, like that of Skype’s acquisition by Microsoft, the unequal distribution can leave employees with nothing. Worse still, Felix Salmon at Reuters points out that because of the way these deals are structured, employees can do little to fight back.The Conversation

First published on The Conversation. Image credit: janpersiel.