Amazon (AMZN) founder and CEO Jeff Bezos told a Wired event that social media companies are fomenting polarization by creating echo chambers for their users.
“I think social media is increasing, unfortunately, identity politics, [and] tribalism. I think the internet in its current incarnation is a confirmation bias machine,” Bezos said in a surprise interview at the Wired 25 conference on Monday afternoon. “If you have a going in point of view and you go do some searches, you find confirmation of your point of view. If your newsfeed is showing you things, it’s showing you things that confirm your point of view … by and large.”
This was in response to Wired editor-at-large Steven Levy asking Bezos “how you’re viewing this difficult moment for technology.”
Confirmation bias as a feature, not a bug
A 2017 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggested that social media algorithms partly rely on confirmation biases to surface the most relevant content for users.
“Our analysis showed that two well-shaped, highly segregated, and mostly non-interacting communities exist around scientific and conspiracy-like topics,” Alessandro Bessi, a postdoctoral researcher with the Information Science Institute at the University of Southern California who co-authored the paper, told CNN. “Users show a tendency to search for, interpret, and recall information that confirm their pre-existing beliefs.”
Last week, Facebook (FB) announced it had removed an additional 800 pages and accounts that were stirring up political engagement ahead of November’s midterm elections by publishing misleading or fake stories that preyed on people’s ingrained biases.
Google’s (GOOG) search has consistently been accused of political bias. However, according to Google’s explainer on how Google News chooses items, most headlines a user sees are selected via Google’s algorithms that are based on past usage history on Google Search, YouTube, the News app itself, and other properties. And conspiracy theory rabbit holes on YouTube show how users can create confirmation bias feedback loops for themselves.
‘Incredibly optimistic about technology’
Bezos added he remains “incredibly optimistic about technology” despite its egregious shortcomings. Earlier in the interview, he argued: “You want risk taking — you want people to have a vision that most people don’t agree with. You have to find something where your particular life path has led you to see something in a particular way so you can pursue it, contribute to society … but in a unique way.”
As any technologist would posit, Bezos believes ultimately it’s better to disrupt than not innovate at all.
“The last thing you’d ever want to do is stop the progress of new technologies even when they are dual use,” he said. “Biotech is going to be amazing — it’s going to save your children and it’s going to cure your cancer and many other things. But it’s going to have dual use too.”
While Bezos was quick to point the finger at social media giants, the world’s richest man on paper also said that he welcomes scrutiny and criticism.
“I think all large institutions should be scrutinized,” Bezos said. “It makes sense to me. Governments should be scrutinized. You should want to live in a society where that happens. And what should you do about it? Just make sure you’re conducting yourself in such a way that when you’re scrutinized, you pass with flying colors.”
Melody Hahm is a senior writer at Yahoo Finance, covering entrepreneurship, technology and real estate. Follow her on Twitter @melodyhahm.