Can These Apps Really Help You Escape Your Filter Bubble?

New tech products offer some tiny first steps toward shaking up our social networks

Illustration: R. A. Di Ieso
May 17, 2017 at 12:15 PM ET

We’ve all been living in our little filter bubbles — those safe spaces online where we consume and share content that tends to reinforce our worldview —  for a long, long time. Yet few seemed to think they were problem in need solving until last year’s bruising presidential battle and its bitter outcome.

Suddenly the cozy echo chambers we inhabit on Facebook and Twitter were a civic scourge, at least to those who were blindsided by Donald Trump’s victory over Hillary Clinton. For members of the media class, filter bubbles and their personalized feedback loops of news and information helped explain an election result that most had failed to predict. For liberals reeling from agonizing defeat, they were an engine driving the deepening political divisions in the country. Just ask Barack Obama.

It didn’t take long for those in the tech world to begin tinkering with ways that could allow social media users to break free from their bubbles and broaden their perspective. Over the last few months, a number of apps and other digital products have emerged, each marketed as a kind of balm for political bias. Vocativ decided to take a look at four of these tools, all of them free and relatively easy to use. The good news? None of them are straight-up snake oil. Still, a cure-all for our self-segregation and polarized news consumption online may be out of reach.

Visualize Your Online Echo Chamber. No, For Real.
Thanks to a Princeton computer-science student, there’s now a Chrome extension that allows you to see just how ideologically skewed your social network might be. PolitEcho crawls through your Facebook data and charts the political leanings of your so-called friends and their news feeds on a blue-to-red spectrum. This analysis is far from an exact science: it looks solely at the pages “liked” by your friends that are dedicated to news or politicians, such as the Wall Street Journal or Elizabeth Warren, and measures the people who show up most in your feed as well as the posts they share. But it’s hard not to consider the findings a bit of a wakeup call. I mean, who are all these left-wing wackos on my Facebook feed?

Try Changing The Channel On Twitter — With Next To No Effort
For those who occasionally hate-watch Rachel Maddow or tune into Rush Limbaugh just to get all riled up by what the other side is saying, there’s a way to do that on Twitter too. FlipFeed, a plugin released by MIT researchers, let’s you dip into someone else’s Twitter stream who is decidedly more liberal or conservative than you are. And yes, these feeds belong to real people around the U.S., though their identities and avatars remain anonymous to FlipFeed users. The whole thing is kind of creepy and voyeuristic. It’s also about as lazy and mindless as channel surfing across cable television. FlipFeed’s creators hope their tool might inspire more empathy in the people who try it out. That’s unlikely. It did, however, make me wonder just how obnoxious my Twitter feed might look to another person.

Receive A ‘Friendly Reminder’ About Your Awful Media Diet
A Fitbit pipes up when you’re dragging ass on those daily steps. Read Across The Aisle does the same when your daily reading diet tacks too far to the right or left. The app, designed by the founder of a Stanford tech startup, keeps tabs on how often users read articles from news sources that span the ideological spectrum. Not only will a meter on your phone turn a deeper shade of red as you venture further down a Fox News or Breitbart rabbit hole, or blue as you churn through articles on Slate and the Huffington Post. The digital tracker also starts sending you push notifications when your media diet becomes a bit too unbalanced. “Just a friendly reminder,” reads the cloying message. “Don’t forget to go outside your bubble every now and then!” That’s your cue to tuck into another David Brooks column as you pace around your living room or kitchen.

Click Here To Escape Your Political Bubble
Step aside, Snake Plissken. Chrome plugin Escape Your Bubble dangles the promise of freedom — however fleeting — from the prison of political groupthink that social networks tend to foster. This tool populates your Facebook feed with article posts that aim to offer a different ideological perspective than the one to which you’re normally accustomed. A left-coast liberal, for example, will suddenly find stories and hot takes from The Federalist or National Review popping in their feed. As an added bonus, Escape Your Bubble repackages this partisan content in a deliberately upbeat and kumbaya fashion. “Fascinating story from Army National Guard Captain on his time during the LA Riots,” reads the tease to one conservative-leaning piece. “While we seek to improve policing, let’s not completely forget why we have them in the first place.” If that doesn’t make you want to click on the link, nothing will.

The new season of DARK NET — an eight-part docuseries developed and produced by Vocativ — airs Thursdays at 10 p.m. ET/PT on SHOWTIME.