Facebook and other media must make room for diversity of thought
A view from Sue Unerman

Facebook and other media must make room for diversity of thought

When Facebook prioritises friends and family in your news feed it may commit editorial bias.

Mark Zuckerberg remarked at the launch of Facebook Watch, a YouTube style content video channel: "Watching a show doesn’t have to be passive. It can be a chance to share an experience and bring people together who care about the same things."

Thus at a stroke, he adopts for Facebook a couple of the strongest attributes of TV on the box now and in the past: the water cooler moment and commonalities of interest. What a perfect description of watching Coronation Street or Morecambe and Wise in the last century – and still what great TV from Game of Thrones to The X Factor can offer.

Facebook’s intention for Watch is user generated content of course. "Watch is a platform for all creators and publishers to find an audience, build a community of passionate fans, and earn money for their work," said director of product Daniel Danker.

>Other media have warned of the perils of too much shared interest. The Guardian commented: "Whilst the ‘things’ that bring people together can be cute videos of kids bossing chefs around, Zuckerberg makes no mention of the possibility those things might also be a shared hatred of a minority or religious group."

Of course no one has any intention, especially this blog, of endorsing hate content, yet we can recognise that shared loves and shared dislikes are a common human bias. It is what we all do. Everyone can criticise editors who they disagree with and faceless algorithms of unconscious bias, of not giving a fair and balanced picture of all the sides of an argument. All successful media do a version of this. This is in effect what has always made media owners successful: a point of view that reassures you that you’re not alone.

You’ve always known what it means to describe a room full of Mirror readers or Telegraph readers. This is a simple way of characterising a point of view, and a set of people who are more alike in values than different.

Those values are what attract people to the brand in the first place.

This is unsurprising. It taps into the basic human need to associate with "people like me", after all a primeval survival instinct. (If you disagree with the rest of the tribe, they are unlikely to bother rescuing you from a sabre tooth tiger or grizzly bear attack.)

Most people go much further of course than simply seeking reassurance of their views and biases in the media. They seek out people who agree with them to spend time with. It’s one definition of friendship: shared values and reassuring perspectives.

Not everyone does this all the time. We try and discourage it at MediaCom. There used to be a poster in MediaCom’s old office which I am thinking of re-issuing. It showed dogs and cats and mice working productively together with the slogan: "I hate you; you’re hired". Its intention was to point out that diversity of opinion makes you stronger and that a good argument with a thesis, antithesis and synthesis, gets you better decisions, as Dave Trott points out in a recent blog.

When Facebook prioritises friends and family in your news and content feed it may commit editorial bias. It is serving you opinions that are likely to agree with your own. As John Simpson pointed out in his review of 20th century journalism Unreliable Sources, this is nothing new. He describes the age-old tension between the view of the reporter, often bravely trying to be as accurate as possible, the demands of the proprietor, and the necessity of selling copies which required stories to be popular and fly off the newsstands – in other words to report opinions that broadly agree with most readers.

Any critique of Facebook’s popular approach must accept that it is largely how popular media has always worked. Facebook is just better at doing it personalised at scale.

For a stronger, more balanced society, and for a stronger, more successful workplace, we need to encourage not just diversity of gender and personal attributes, but also diversity of thought.

Sue Unerman is the chief transformation officer of MediaCom
@SueU