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Time to get mad about information inequality (again)

“Information inequality is not new and it was not invented by Facebook, but the choices made by technologists and social media content producers alike tend to amplify unequal access to news.”

One week before the 2016 presidential election, I was in a coffee shop interviewing a young woman (let’s call her Mariah) about her use of social media for news. We read her Facebook News Feed together, scrolling through 30, 40, 50 posts and more: There was no news. Just days before the election — that election — no posts about politics. No Trump, no Clinton. Nothing but an absence.

Mariah lives in a social media news desert. Her digital feeds provide her with almost no civic information. You, dear reader, probably think that is crazy. Your social media streams are nothing but news — mine too. But Mariah is not alone. In a national survey of online young adults just before the 2016 election, 40 percent said they saw nothing at all about politics on social media in the previous week. What’s worse, across datasets we find that social media news deserts are unequally distributed: The educated see more news on social media than those with less education, the rich see more than the poor, white social media users see more news than non-white users. Exposure to news online is more stratified than offline news use.

Information inequality is not new and it was not invented by Facebook, but the choices made by technologists and social media content producers alike tend to amplify unequal access to news. Less educated, lower income citizens are less likely to seek out news online and less likely to report interest in news and politics. Their friends are less likely to share news on social media. Algorithms create a feedback loop connecting all these behavioral signals to future content exposure, reproducing inequalities over time. News organizations desperate to grow social media audiences have no financial incentive to target marginalized groups. The end result is that some people are more attractive to news online than others. That is dangerous for democracy.

I’m less interested in prediction than mobilization: This year, let’s get mad about who is being left out. Let’s make information inequality central in the public debate about the role of social media in democracy. Platforms should think about information equity when they tweak algorithmic systems. News organizations should think about equity when they target audiences for paid content on social media. Let’s do more content experiments to figure out how to reach underserved populations with high-quality news online. Happy new year: These might be problems we can fix.

Kjerstin Thorson is an associate professor at Michigan State University.

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