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Twitter trumps Facebook

Chiponda Chimbelu, Julia BayerAugust 20, 2014

People have complained about events from Ferguson not appearing in their Facebook newsfeeds. They feel that the news on the world's largest social network may be skewed. But should we be blaming Facebook or ourselves?

Protesters in Ferguson Photo: REUTERS/Joshua Lott
Image: Reuters

There has been a disparity in what people see on the events in Ferguson on Twitter and Facebook, the world's largest social network.

For some, the discrepancy demonstrates the growing power of social networks to control the news we see, and thereby potentially influence how we see the world. However, the difference boils down to the nature of the social networks and how they work.

Twitter users were able to see #Ferguson earlier on because of how the trends algorithm for that social network works, said Torsten Müller, co-founder of Tame, an analytics tool for Twitter. He said he suspects that the Twitter Trending Topics algorithm - a mathematical formula to rank interaction - is "probably a mixture of velocity and also a quantity of people talking about something" so if a hashtag hasn't been used before and suddenly spikes with many people using it over short period of time, it is likely to be picked up as a trend.

Relying on spikes, also means that tweets on Justin Bieber aren't always a trend because the number of tweets mentioning him, despite being high, tends to be constant.

"You could have for example, other hashtags that are frequently being used a lot but also constantly, and this wouldn't necessarily be trending topics because the velocity is missing," Müller said.

Facebook vs. Twitter

And once people notice a trend, they may choose to tweet it themselves, meaning that more people are likely to see it on Twitter - a platform on which people can follow whomever they choose. Things couldn't be more different on Facebook where "friendship" has to be mutual for the "friends" to have access to each other's updates. Even then, there's a good chance that people making posts choose to restrict status updates to certain groups or friends.

Whereas Twitter allows users to see the latest updates (tweets and retweets) from the people they follow in real time, Facebook collates posts (updates) using an algorithm in the newsfeed. The algorithm relies on a number of factors, including your previous Facebook activity. As the Facebook algorithm relies heavily on social interaction, users may sometimes miss out on some trends Facebook calculates they won't be interested in.

"If you are not necessarily following a lot of news organizations on Facebook or liking their pages, then an event like Ferguson wouldn't necessarily reach you," Müller said.

About one in three Facebook news consumers in the United States "like" a news organization, according to a study by the Pew Research Center. This "suggests that the news they see there is coming from friends - the same friends likely sending them posts about...everything else."

Can you break out of the filter bubble?

Whether on Facebook, Twitter, or even Google Plus, users rely heavily on the people and groups they follow. If "like attracts like," then many people may living in a bubble on social media. Twitter offers more possibilities for users to break out of their filter bubbles, Müller said.

"I think Twitter allows you to [break out of this filter bubble] because there's an asynchronous principle of following in this platform," he sadid. "If you curate your network well, you can definitely make sure events like Ferguson [...] will somehow reach you and appear in your timeline."

Even though Facebook offers functions that allow users to follow a person's public updates, information still tends to remain in circles or groups of friends. Also, people on Facebook are less likely to comment, like or share articles or comments on controversial topics because they fear that they might offend their friends. When Facebook, however, notices little interaction with news and controversial topics, its algorithm puts it down to a lack of interest in such issues and shows users fewer of them.

We are responsible for the news we get

But despite the Facebook algorithm coming under criticism for the lack of news on Ferguson, the social network should not be held responsible since how we consume the news is our responsibility and part of "media education," Müller said.

"Facebook has business interests and if its business interest emphasizes the kind of usage that users a following right now, which is not so much of a news platform, then so be it," he added.