Social Bubble Bath
We’ve long heard that the ways the web is tailored for each user—how we search, what we’re shown, who we read and follow— reinforces walls between us. Veronica Belmont investigates how social media can create, and can break, our filter bubbles. Megan Phelps-Roper discusses the Westboro Baptist Church, and the bubbles that form both on and offline. B.J. May talks about the bubbles he encountered every day, in his Twitter feed, and tells us how he broke free. Rasmus Nielsen suggests social media isn’t the filter culprit we think it is. And, within the context of a divided America, DeRay McKesson argues that sometimes bubbles are what hold us together.
Grab a cup of coffee and Say Hi From the Other Side.
Veronica Belmont: Imagine everything in your line of sight is preselected, that you’re living in a box that blocks out whatever doesn’t fit with your own identity. Online, we call that a filter bubble, and generally, we think it’s a bad thing to be trapped in one. When you’re in a filter bubble, you can miss out on seeing the perspective of others.
Rasmus Kleis Nielsen: It’s a very plausible idea, and it’s a really important question.
Henry Tsai: I remember having this feeling of guilt that I never had a conversation with someone who disagreed with me about the election.
Megan Phelps-Roper: We saw Westboro as a refuge from a world that was full of Satanic people, and lies, and delusions that would lead us to Hell if we indulged them in any way.
B.J. May: Everyone looked like me. Everyone thought pretty much like I thought, so, it was comfortable, you know.
Veronica Belmont: But, there might be another way to look at this. Maybe sometimes, a bubble can actually be useful.
DeRay Mckesson: When I think about us in Ferguson, if it were not for us like coming together, using social media as our own space, we wouldn’t have ever begun the protest.
Rasmus Kleis Nielsen: In some ways, the very technologies that some people feared would lead us to filter bubbles seem, in fact, to have the opposite consequences.
Veronica Belmont: We’ve long heard that the ways we tailor the web for each user, how we search, what we’re shown, who we read and follow, is driving us apart from each other. Back in the mid-2000s, Google started auto-completing your search results, super handy. A little while later, other platforms caught on. Predict what the user wants to see and you get more clicks and more user activity. Filter bubbles were good for business. Then they were good for advertisers, and then for political campaigns, then good for propaganda bots. The bubbles have now been weaponized. Meanwhile, we’re reading only the news we want, following only the people that align with our view of the world. Comforting, but also isolating. In this episode, we’re leaning into how social media can create and can break our filter bubbles in both our online lives and in our offline ones. I’m Veronica Belmont and this is IRL Online Life Is Real Life, an original podcast from Mozilla.
Megan Phelps-Roper: I was five years old when the church started protesting, so I grew up talking about current events in light of the church’s understanding of the Bible and memorizing chapters at a time, and then standing on a picket line almost daily, talking to people about these ideas.
Veronica Belmont: That’s Megan Phelps-Roper. The church she was born into is the Westboro Baptist Church. That may ring a bell. They’re often in the news, holding signs at the funerals of soldiers or picketing events that support gay people. It’s easy to dislike everything the church stands for. Essentially, their MO is to argue that anything bad that happens, terror strikes, tsunamis, AIDS, it’s all God’s wrath. It’s all punishment for being wicked. Megan grew up in that world view and believed it to be true. Westboro Church built an enormously powerful bubble around its members.
Megan Phelps-Roper: We saw Westboro as a refuge from a world that was full of satanic people and lies and delusions that would lead us to hell if we indulged them in any way. So I thought our message was the truth of God and the only hope for mankind.
Veronica Belmont: She joined Twitter in 2009. It was explicitly to promote her church’s views. The church encouraged it.
Megan Phelps-Roper: It just seemed like a great place to go and preach and warn people about their sins.
Veronica Belmont: Even as she reached beyond her bubble, people started reaching back. Ultimately, this would lead her to leaving the church forever.
Megan Phelps-Roper: My cousin, one day, she brought me this list, 100 Most Influential Jews on Twitter. Number two on that list was a man named David Abitbol. I was tweeting several people on the list, but he was the one who really responded, at first. I said something about Jewish customs being dead rote rituals that would lead them all to hell and he initially responded with a lot of hostility and anger, which was exactly what I expected because that was how things had always happened on the picket line.
Veronica Belmont: David is tweeting at you, you’re having this back and forth, it feels very aggressive. At what point did that start to change? How did you feel in that moment?
Megan Phelps-Roper: He did realize pretty quickly that I was sincere, what I believe was the truth of God. His tone sort of changed, became a lot more like friendly barbs, instead of these angry insults. And then it sort of enabled us to start asking each other questions. He started asking me questions about our picket signs. I wanted to know about Jewish theology and their understanding of the world so that I could better refute it. I picketed him twice during this time. He came out to the picket line to chat, so I’m holding a “God Hates Jews” sign, he comes up and brings me this Israeli dessert that he brought from Jerusalem, where he lives, and I brought him peppermint chocolate. It was sort of moving to me in a way that I wasn’t consciously aware of at the time.
Veronica Belmont: You hadn’t had this kind of discourse with someone before. This is really the first time these seeds of doubt are becoming implanted in your mind.
Megan Phelps-Roper: I wasn’t even thinking of it as doubt. I wasn’t aware in that moment that I was being changed, but when I was on Twitter, I was open in a way that just I never could be in real life. It just sort of gave me a window into other people’s lives in a way that helped me see that they weren’t what I was taught.
Veronica Belmont: So what is - what’s the breaking point? When do you realize that things for you are different?
Megan Phelps-Roper: It definitely took time. For instance, we protested funerals, and then being on Twitter, I would see the way that people responded to tragedy and I became increasingly uncomfortable celebrating tragedy. And I felt like “This doesn’t seem quite right,” and then another thing, “This doesn’t seem quite right.” And you know it just became this sort of unraveling.
Veronica Belmont: Ultimately, you leave the church. How did it feel for you to finally burst that bubble?
Megan Phelps-Roper: You immediately become other when you leave, so the day that I left there were several people who came and tried to talk me out of it, but once they realize that you won’t be swayed away from making this decision, it’s just over. You are basically disowned, shunned. They will have no relationship with you whatsoever. It’s devastating, you know?
Veronica Belmont: So now that you’re outside of the bubble, looking back in, what does that look like to you?
Megan Phelps-Roper: It’s really strange sometimes to look back at old videos of myself or current videos of my family and because, of course, there’s a part of my brain that knows exactly what they’re saying and where they’re coming from and why they think the way that they do. It’s something I think about often is how can I help my family, who are still there, to question some of the ideas that they hold. And they can change, and I know that they can.
Veronica Belmont: You know what’s interesting, the way you describe this, it sounds like you are actually the Rosetta Stone into the Westboro Baptist Church because you are able to reverse engineer their arguments in a way that most people on the outside don’t have the ability to do.
Megan Phelps-Roper: I had decades of people yelling and screaming and attacking, physically attacking, and threatening. Those things only pushed me even deeper into my ideology. The thing that changed me, or that helped me change and to see things differently, was people who took the time and had you know the willingness and the compassion to understand where I was coming from. It’s so much more effective. We’ve talked about bubbles so much, I feel like we’re being pushed deeper and deeper into our bubbles and thinking that the only answer is to yell louder, resist harder, and I think it’s the opposite. It’s the willingness to be vulnerable and have the conversation and to listen.
Veronica Belmont: Megan Phelps-Roper left the Westboro Baptist Church with her sister in 2012. You can still find her on Twitter. Last year, the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism published a report. They wanted to see to what extent social media did inflate filter bubbles, particularly around the kind of news information the average user consumed. Rasmus Nielsen helped write that report. He found that, as far as our news diets are concerned, Twitter and Facebook aren’t the poison they’re made out to be.
Rasmus Kleis Nielsen: The average online user who does not use social media, use somewhere in between one or two different sources of online news per week, whereas those who use social media are exposed to significantly more different sources of online news.
Veronica Belmont: Rasmus and his team surveyed 70,000 people from 36 countries.
Rasmus Kleis Nielsen: Also, really importantly, people who use social media are also engaging with sources from different ends of the political spectrum, if you will. More liberal and more conservative sources. In some ways, the very technologies that some people feared would lead us to filter bubbles, right now, at least as they have operated in recent years, seem in fact to have the opposite consequences.
Veronica Belmont: No, it’s not a settled debate, but it’s certainly interesting. And if we’re talking about media diets, the stuff we consume and the stuff we don’t, then we can make choices about what’s in that diet. When I reached B.J. May, he was in the middle of a pretty big choice himself. B.J.’s employer offered him a chance to relocate and he took it. He moved his whole family to a suburb north of Atlanta, Georgia. Like he was literally in the middle of doing this, he was in a mostly empty house when we talked.
B.J. May: That’s right, we set the mattresses up and we and that’s our audio booth right now, is basically a pillow fort so that we could have some quiet.
Veronica Belmont: So as he got comfortable in his fort, I asked him to compare his new town to his old one.
B.J. May: The first and most obvious difference is population size. The town I’m moving to has a population of about 30,000 people and the town that I’m moving from has a population of 1,200 people. It’s a very small, German farming town in Central Illinois I’m leaving and I’m moving to a Northern Atlanta suburb. It’s a lot bigger.
Veronica Belmont: So the old town, is that kind of like a real-life filter bubble, then?
B.J. May: Absolutely. It’s a geographic filter bubble and a cultural filter bubble. Everyone looked like me, everyone thought pretty much like I thought, and it was easy to become comfortable to the point that complacency sets in you know?
Veronica Belmont: Moving across state lines, it’s a bit drastic, but the move is really a culmination of something B.J.’s been working on for the past couple years. See, while B.J. lived in that little farming town, he started noticing how his world didn’t match up with the one people were talking about on social.
B.J. May: I’m a web developer. I was following people in Silicon Valley. I was following people in major metropolitan areas. And as I got connected to them, I realized that their stories were really not like mine.
Veronica Belmont: What kind of stories are you talking about? How are they so different from your own personal experience?
B.J. May: Well, principally they were talking about privilege. They were talking about prejudice. They were talking about discrimination. They were talking about sexism and racism. I just quite simply had not been exposed to those notions and I was in such a homogenous community for my whole life that I didn’t have to watch anyone else experience them either.
Veronica Belmont: So B.J. challenged himself to shift perspective and then came the spark. A string of tweets that changed everything. He posted an article on Medium about what happened next.
B.J. May: It was called How 26 Tweets Broke My Filter Bubble, but those 26 tweets came from a guy, a black man who is a developer. His name is Marco Rogers.
Veronica Belmont: Marco’s tweets called for readers like B.J. to break their bubbles through a series of steps. B.J. outlined the four steps and decided he would do just that.
B.J. May: The four steps were I needed to find people who weren’t like me. That was the first thing. The second one was I was going to follow one of those people every single day for 30 days. For a whole month, I’m going to follow one new account every single day and I’m going to keep following each of them for no fewer than 30 days. I wanted to expose myself to whatever they were talking about. I wanted to find accounts that would make me uncomfortable, that would challenge the boundaries of my own belief system and force myself to be exposed to those. The third rule was I wouldn’t engage with them in any fashion, apart from just reading. I would not ask them questions, I would not demand that they clarify their position, I would not make them define things or debate with them. I would not interact in any way apart from just reading. And then finally, the fourth rule was that I would engage in my own self-study when I did encounter terms or concepts that were foreign to me. That kind of goes along with the third rule. And all those rules were based on how I saw people interacting in this space and getting burned. When someone was doing this wrong, when someone was interacting with these more marginalized groups and getting shouted out of the room, it was because they weren’t doing these things. That was my observation there.
Veronica Belmont: In those first 30 days, were you working towards a finish line? Did you think at the end of the 30 days that was going to be the bubble popped or was there a goal you were working towards?
B.J. May: If I’m going to be honest with you, I thought I would be done with it and walk away from it and be able to get myself a sticker star, and maybe I’ll get a pat on the back and people will think I’m very smart and a really great ally and that will be the end of that. That’s not how it works at all. I had to make those things permanent. I loosened up the rules just a little bit on how much I would interact with these various marginalized group members, but I still try and listen more than I speak.
Veronica Belmont: How does this keep evolving for you? How does online culture affect these choices you’re making, like the #metoo movement, for instance, these new cultural moments continue to happen. Are you trying to stay up to date on all of these?
B.J. May: Yeah, actually back in mid-October, right as the first set of high-profile workplace harassment cases started to get circulated, I unfollowed anyone who identifies as a man on Twitter. So I’ve been doing that for a couple months now and I’ve got to tell you, Twitter’s a little better. It is.
Veronica Belmont: Do you feel like you’re in just a different bubble now?
B.J. May: That is a perfectly legitimate question, did I trade one bubble for another right?. I’ve had a couple people suggest exactly that to me. Based on the fact that all my friends and family that I’ve had for years, that many of my coworkers remain in the worldview from whence I originated you know, I don’t think that that’s actually the case. I don’t think that I’ve actually fully traded one bubble for another. I don’t exist only on Twitter. I didn’t trade one life for another, I traded a set of Twitter followers and Twitter accounts for another. These social media tools that we have at our disposal, they’re powerful, but you have to be intentional about your usage of them. If they are just passive reinforcements of the worldview that you already have and the worldview of the people around you, then that filter bubble stops becoming a bubble and becomes a prison. Just do it on purpose. Don’t let the voices that come to you and the opinions that impact you just happen. Look at them and inspect them and challenge them and decide if they’re worth keeping or not.
Veronica Belmont: B.J. May now lives with his family in Acworth, Georgia. He says he picked Georgia deliberately because he wanted his kids to be exposed to a wider diversity of people and perspectives. There’s a link to B.J.’s Medium post, How 26 Tweets Broke My Filter Bubble, in the show notes to this episode. Find it at IRLPodcast.org. I’m Veronica Belmont and this is IRL Online Life Is Real Life. Not everybody inside a bubble thinks they’re trapped. For the powerless, being able to access a community, a feedback chamber can be empowering.
DeRay Mckesson: I think what’s interesting about filter bubbles is how they’re created. I think we often talk about them as these static things that always exist.
Veronica Belmont: DeRay Mckesson is a leading voice in the Black Lives Matter movement. He’s a pro at merging on-the-streets activism with really effective social media outreach. Deray was there at the very start of Black Lives Matter and he saw right away not all filter bubbles are created equal.
DeRay Mckesson: I think what we saw in 2014 was like a new bubble emerge, that people had obviously used Twitter as a mechanism for social good in other places, at mass scale in other countries. There weren’t automatically a set of activists who like understood how to protest and stand in the street the way that it was happening in real time. A filter bubble was emerging, like a community all of a sudden had just begun to form.
Veronica Belmont: Tell me more about how you used your social bubble to your advantage.
DeRay Mckesson: Think about hashtags as paperclips. What happened in the early days, it was Mike Brown, it was Ferguson. Those were the first two hashtags before we started using Black Lives Matter. Those hashtags became the primary organizing tool, the way that we rallied thousands of people on the street and moved them, but in those early days it was just so new for people that we were able to use the nascency of hashtags and things like that for social justice to really mobilize.
Veronica Belmont: Do you have an example of a time when that was especially useful?
DeRay Mckesson: So many, but I think about us in protest in Ferguson. One of the nights of the single biggest protest, me and three of my friends were standing on a corner, nobody’s there, and we start Tweeting “People need to come. There’s something happening.” A couple thousand people come literally because the three of us just said, “This is the place to be.” That happened a lot you know, where we could move big groups of people by delivering the message in the right way.
Veronica Belmont: How does it feel to be able to mobilize using a platform like social media, like Twitter.
DeRay Mckesson: It felt incredible to be able to be in community with people and not necessarily need to know their faces, but you can know their hearts by what was happening online. Like it was really powerful because we were just connected so quickly and we could get feedback so quickly. So you think about the people in Palestine taught us how to deal with teargas before anybody came and did a training in St. Louis, and that was powerful.
Veronica Belmont: Tell me more about that. You guys actually had conversations with other groups about how to handle these kinds of situations?
DeRay Mckesson: Conversations makes it sound like even more coordinated and formal. We were just going through a crisis right and people reached out, being like, “Here’s what you can do.” There was people in Palestine that helped us with teargas. There was some of the Occupy people that helped us think about strategy in the street better. They could get to us pretty quickly right because all they had to do is DM us. There were these really experienced hackers who helped us secure our phones and our computers and it just happened in real time in a way that we weren’t prepared for. We didn’t know what was happening. Now we look back, we just knew people were coming to stand with us.
Veronica Belmont: DeRay Mckesson is a civil rights activist and leader. He also hosts a social justice and politics podcast called Pod Save The People. So, are you ready to burst out of your bubble? Want a little help to get you started? There’s a number of places online offering to help you do just that.
Henry Tsai: Hey, I’m Henry and I want to say hi from the other side.
Veronica Belmont: Okay, that’s Henry Tsai and yes, he is indeed saying hi, to you specifically. He launched a bubble-busting website of sorts. It’s called well Hi From The Other Side. Say you’re a conservative and you want to get to know a liberal better, so you sign up on the website and answer a few questions. Henry’s algorithm crunches some data and pairs you with someone. Then you commit to meeting offline, in the real world, and start a conversation. His program paired the first two volunteers last fall.
Henry Tsai: And I remember being quite nervous and waiting to hear back from them to see whether they even went through with the conversation. I think they did about two or three days later. It turns out they went to a pizza shop or a burger place at midnight, because that was the only time that the two of them were both available. You know both had said, independently, that they were surprised at how civil it was and how nice the other person was. And I’m proud to report, actually, that I haven’t heard of a single negative experience.
Veronica Belmont: So what exactly inspired you to cook this up?
Henry Tsai: When the 2016 presidential election happened, I remember having this feeling of guilt that I never had a conversation with someone who basically disagreed with me about the election. Then I was seeing on Facebook all these posts of people saying, “Wow. I really want to talk to someone on the other side.”
Veronica Belmont: Who are these people who want to have these conversations?
Henry Tsai: It’s actually people from all over the country, people from every state, many people from outside of the country trying to have these conversations, too. We have everyone from someone who’s about to go off to college to retirees to schoolteachers to people working at restaurants. They go in without any idea of who the other person is, other than a name. We introduce people to each other as if they’re two mutual friends of mine. I would say, “Hey, Veronica, meet Dominic and ne of you supported Hillary Clinton and the other one supported Donald Trump in the election. Here’s some suggestions for having a good conversation.” Then we kind of just send people off.
Veronica Belmont: So, Henry, what’s this about having to work as a team to get free coffee?
Henry Tsai: The way it works is first we find people who are close to each other and then we separately send each individual essentially half of the code they need to unlock the Starbucks gift card.
Veronica Belmont: (laughing) I love it.
Henry Tsai: And the added benefit of that is when you show up, you would have to work together, even for 30 seconds. There’s research showing that if people work together towards anything, towards something, it kind of reorients their relationship. And I thought, “What a great way to get people on the right foot when they have their conversation.”
Veronica Belmont: That is freaking ingenious. That is devilish and fiendish and amazing. That’s super smart. I love it. I love it.
Henry Tsai: Thanks.
Veronica Belmont: For years now, there’s been worries that online everyone’s being put into a filter bubble, so everyone’s entrenched in their beliefs and most people don’t or won’t or can’t escape, so what do you make of the attitude around this?
Henry Tsai: Sometimes people say, “Well, the solution is I’m just going to get off Facebook,” or, “The solution is I’m going to stop using Twitter.” I think that’s probably not the right approach. For me is what can we do to augment or build upon the tools that we have to make the experience better.
Veronica Belmont: Henry’s project has more than 6,000 people signed up. He’s been able to pair about 1,500 so far. Look it up at HiFromTheOtherSide.com. For better or for worse, there’s no such thing as a bubble-free life. We’re in a bubble bath. They form offline, like in Megan’s case with the Westboro Baptist Church, and they form online, like B.J. found on his Twitter feed. Bubbles can be the thing that hold us together, like they do for DeRay, or they can be the thing keeping us apart, which Henry is trying to change. There’s lots of small ways you can tweak your own bubble. You don’t need to move your family to another state or even go for coffee with strangers. Say the news is weirdly depressing. You can seek out a good news aggregator. There’s lots of them. If you get most of your news from social media, maybe it’s time to audit the list of people you follow. Take stock of who they are and then seek out the voices you’re missing. Then, listen. IRL is an original podcast from Mozilla, the not for profit behind the all-new Firefox browser. I’m Veronica Belmont and I’ll see you online until we catch up again, IRL. Fun fact, I do actually only exist on Twitter.
B.J. May: You only exist on Twitter?
Veronica Belmont: I only yeah, I only yeah, I have an incorporeal form that only exists on Twitter.
B.J. May: I dig it. You’re the next stage in human evolution.