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Facebook’s AI boss: Facebook could fix its filter bubble if it wanted to

The company could build the technology, but it’s just not that simple, he added.

The Muslim Festival Of Eid al-Fitr Is Celebrated Around The UK Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

One of the biggest complaints about Facebook — and its all-powerful News Feed algorithm — is that the social network often shows you posts supporting beliefs or ideas you (probably) already have.

Facebook’s feed is personalized, so what you see in your News Feed is a reflection of what you want to see, and people usually want to see arguments and ideas that align with their own.

The term for this, often associated with Facebook, is a “filter bubble,” and people have written books about it. A lot of people have pointed to that bubble, as well as to the proliferation of fake news on Facebook, as playing a major role in last month’s presidential election.

Now the head of Facebook’s artificial intelligence research division, Yann LeCun, says this is a problem Facebook could solve with artificial intelligence.

“We believe this is more of a product question than a technology question,” LeCun told a group of reporters last month when asked if artificial intelligence could solve this filter-bubble phenomenon. “We probably have the technology, it’s just how do you make it work from the product side, not from the technology side.”

A Facebook spokesperson clarified after the interview that the company doesn't actually have this type of technology just sitting on the shelf. But LeCun seems confident it could be built. So why doesn’t Facebook build it?

“These are questions that go way beyond whether we can develop AI technology that solves the problem,” LeCun continued. “They’re more like trade-offs that I’m not particularly well placed to determine. Like, what is the trade-off between filtering and censorship and free expression and decency and all that stuff, right? So [it's not a question of if] the technology exists or can be developed, but ... does it make sense to deploy it. This is not my department.”

Facebook has long denied that its service creates a filter bubble. It has even published a study defending the diversity of peoples’ News Feeds. Now LeCun is at the very least acknowledging that a filter bubble does exist, and that Facebook could fix it if it wanted to.

And that’s fascinating because while it certainly seemed like a fixable problem from the outside — Facebook employs some of the smartest machine-learning and language-recognition experts in the world — it once again raises questions around Facebook’s role as a news and information distributor.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has long argued that his social network is a platform that leaves what you see (or don’t see) to computer algorithms that use your online activity to rank your feed. Facebook is not a media company making human-powered editorial decisions, he argues. (We disagree.)

But is showing its users a politically balanced News Feed Facebook’s responsibility? Zuckerberg wrote in September that Facebook is already “more diverse than most newspapers or TV stations” and that the filter-bubble issue really isn’t an issue. Here’s what he wrote.

One of the things we’re really proud of at Facebook is that, whatever your political views, you probably have some friends who are in the other camp. ... [News Feed] is not a perfect system. Research shows that we all have psychological bias that makes us tune out information that doesn't fit with our model of the world. It's human nature to gravitate towards people who think like we do. But even if the majority of our friends have opinions similar to our own, with News Feed we have easier access to more news sources than we did before.

So this, right here, explains why Facebook isn’t building the kind of technology that LeCun says it’s capable of building. At least not right now.

There are some benefits to a bubble like this, too, specifically user safety. Unlike Twitter, for example, Facebook’s bubble is heightened by the fact that your posts are usually private, which makes it harder for strangers to comment on them or drag you into conversations you might not want to be part of. The result: Facebook doesn’t have to deal with the level of abuse and harassment that Twitter struggles with.

Plus, Facebook isn’t the only place you’ll find culture bubbles. Here’s “SNL” making fun of a very similar bubble phenomenon that has come to light since election night.

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