How did my Facebook feed get the EU Referendum result so wrong?

People aren't being honest about who they’re voting for – just how much is social media scaring us in to not saying what we truly feel? asks Susanna Lazarus

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Why am I so shocked that Britain have voted for Brexit?

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That was the question I asked myself this morning, staring in horror at the TV screen as David Dimbleby dissected one of the most important decisions our country has ever made. According to Facebook, 95% of my feed had been backing Remain.

Throughout the last week, my friends were nailing their colours to the Remain mast on social media, whether it be checking in as they voted, posting links to Guardian articles with impassioned calls to arms or sharing (sometimes patronising) pleas for people they last saw drunk in a nightclub five years ago to ‘do the right thing’ and vote to stay in the EU.

There were even Craig David memes…

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Now, I love a good Craig David pun as much as the next person, and – for the record – I, like the overwhelming majority of my age bracket, voted for Remain.

I also paid close attention to the polls and was under no illusion that a vote to stay in the EU would come anywhere close to 95%. But as I went to sleep yesterday (before Newcastle had declared) I felt hopeful – and a great deal of that hope came down to the sentiment shared on my social media feeds. 

I should contextualise: I’m a 27-year-old Londoner. 60% of the capital voted to remain, and I very much inhabit that bubble. From the campaigners at tube stations eager to pin an “I’M IN” sticker on my lapel to the passionate conversations that took place in the office, I’m more than aware that our cosmopolitan metropolis is by no means indicative of the national mood.

That much was made clear last night.

My collection of Facebook friends is also fairly homogenous. The majority of my connections come from school and university – similar upbringings, like-minded opinions. I would expect the majority of my acquaintances to vote as I voted.

But what about those who didn’t? Where were they on my social media feed?

I’ve found Facebook a pretty ugly space these past few days, not for those who side with Remain, but for the users who stake their claim to Leave – for the most part decent people, like you and I, with informed reasons for their decision.

A quick scroll through my feed yesterday surfaced one or two plucky souls announcing their support for Brexit – one was told, “Ur lovely but (in the nicest possible way) ur mental.” Another was met with a stream of angry-faced emojis.

I also have a couple of good friends who voted to Leave but avoided posting their views online, not because they were ashamed, but because they couldn’t face the backlash. Can we blame them? I’m all for healthy debate but these last few days have seen the few Brexit voters on my feed shot down simply for stating their allegiance.

This morning has been no better. Off the back of the result, another ‘friend’ felt compelled to write “F*** all of you small minded bigots and f*** those of you who followed them” – a statement met with “f***ing tell them mate” and “well said”. 

This is hardly going to prompt users to be up front with their opinions in future. It’s the sort of public shaming that’s tied into the failure of pollsters to predict the outcome of both the EU vote and last year’s General Election.

People aren’t being honest about who they’re voting for – the question is, just how much is social media scaring us into not saying what we truly feel?

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Of course, this is just half of the story. The other lies with Facebook and their increasingly complicated news feed algorithms.

“We believe that our role on News Feed is to help people connect to the stories that matter to them most,” explained Adam Mosseri, VP of Product Management for News Feed in April of this year.

In reality, what that means is a news feed cultivated and tailored specifically to your interests. What you do on Facebook is monitored and your future feed is adapted accordingly.

So, if I spent the last few weeks liking and commenting on pro-Remain statuses, clicking through and reading pro-Remain articles and sharing pro-Remain sentiment, Facebook will move to surface the sort of content they think ties in with that activity. It goes some way to explaining the endless stream of “I’m In” statuses I scrolled past yesterday.

There’s an argument for this. As Mosseri explains, “The system is very user-centric and we believe focusing on the user experience means that over the long run more and more people will use Facebook, they’ll spend more time on it and that’ll be good for them, good for Facebook and good for publishers.”

As far as Facebook are concerned it’s a win-win, but for us it raises some scary questions: to what extent is our Facebook feed shaping our view of the world? If what we see is funnelled to conform to what we believe, how are those views ever going to be countered with lively debate and discussion that both challenges and affirms?

And will those opinions, left unchallenged, simply swell and strengthen to the point where we’re labelling those who disagree with us as bigots and telling them to “f*** off”?

They’re big questions without easy answers, but it’s worth bearing in mind as Britain enters this great unknown.

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My Facebook news feed fed me a big lie yesterday. As we increasingly rely on social media for our news and opinion, we mustn’t fall under the spell of taking these networks at face value any more than we believe The Sun and Rupert Murdoch have Jeremy Corbyn’s best interests at heart.