Facebook wants to burst your filter bubble.
A new patent — filed last March but just made public — details one way Facebook may push back on political echo chambers in its News Feed. Titled “Systems and Methods for Providing Diverse Content,” the patent explains how Facebook could use its News Feed to surface alternative viewpoints about political content.
In essence, the tool described would detect content that’s overtly political — like that mentioning a specific candidate in an upcoming election — and automatically display the positions of other candidates in the same race, along with their names and photos.
“For example, during a presidential election, if a user expresses interest in a newsfeed or article relating to a presidential candidate’s position on gun control (or any other political issue), the user may be automatically presented with a listing of each candidate’s position on gun control,” the patent says.
“The user is thus presented with a spectrum of opinions surrounding the topic of gun control from different angles. As a result, the user would be better informed with respect to the topic and would be in a better position to draw his/her own conclusions.”
Importantly, this additional information would be automatically surfaced only when Facebook detects that you’re likely to agree with the views expressed in a particular piece of content (the patent notes it will take your interactions into account, such as clicking on a news story or sharing it with a friend).
Facebook didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment on the patent and whether or not the feature could be implemented ahead of the upcoming midterm elections. But the social network has experimented with similar tools in the past, like the “related articles” feature that showed up in tests last year. That feature would detect popular stories shared across Facebook and surface similar articles about the same topic when one link was shared. The idea, according to Facebook at the time was to “provide people easier access to additional perspectives and information, including articles by third-party fact checkers.”
Facebook’s latest patent takes this a step further, though, in that it specifically addresses political issues and candidates. Instead of simply surfacing a similar story from in alternative news source, it gives specific information about where different candidates stand on a divisive issues, like gun control.
It’s a significant move for the company, which has long been criticized for enabling the kind of political echo chambers that have helped fake news spread on the social network. Despite Mark Zuckerberg’s initial reluctance to accept the existence of these self-reinforcing filter bubbles, studies have shown just how destructive they can be.
Whether or not features like this are actually useful, though, is less clear. People may be less likely to engage with a competing viewpoint regardless of whether or not Facebook puts in right in front of them. And even Facebook’s patent indicates that users may be able to hide the tool showing candidates’ positions in the first place.
Still, it shows that Facebook is finally taking its filter bubble problem seriously.