I recently experienced Twitter through the eyes of another person: Henri, a nurse in Indiana who, according to her bio, is Christian, anti-abortion, and favors both the military and the Second Amendment.
As you’d expect, her feed reflects those beliefs: She follows accounts with “MAGA” — that’s “Make America Great Again” — in their titles, which are prone to posting links to Fox News and The Washington Times.
One account she follows tweeted an image of Antonin Scalia’s disembodied head and right hand, both semi-opaque, hovering over the White House and accompanied by the all-caps text “good job Mr. President and thank you.” Scrolling down a little farther, I found a tweet by a survivalist account of instructions on how to eat a pine tree (which, the page informs me, are high in vitamin C and fiber).
These visions have been summoned by a Chrome plugin called FlipFeed, developed by a team at MIT. It’s akin to Blue Feed, Red Feed, a project by The Wall Street Journal that shows versions of a Facebook news feed with politically divergent stories on the same topic, but far more intimate: Instead of showing a generically liberal or conservative feed, it teleports you into the feed of an actual Twitter user, selected randomly from a large pool of politically vocal users with public accounts, each complete with friends and family and self-promotional spam. It can be alternately disorienting and voyeuristic.
Martin Saveski, a graduate student at MIT’s Laboratory for Social Machines (which receives funding from Twitter, though the company doesn’t shape its research), conceived of the project with three collaborators soon after the presidential election as a tool to promote empathy.
“Instead of just showing you the political content that shows up in people’s feeds, we also show you a fuller view of the people,” Saveski said in an interview with The Outline. “Instead of just seeing the news they consume, we show you who they are and what their lives are like.”
The account owners don’t know they’re part of the experiment
Of course, the crueler parts of Twitter are notorious for perverting seemingly harmless research, like when far-right users taught an experimental Microsoft chatbot to espouse racism and anti-feminism. Though there’s no evidence of anyone using FlipFeed for harassment so far, it’s easy to imagine its potential for harm: the plugin only lets you flip with public accounts, but the account owners don’t know they’re part of the experiment.
Saveski said, though, that MIT’s internal review board found the project to pose minimal risk to users, and that he believes the plugin is more likely to be used to build empathy for the “other side,” a phrase he uses to denote a group we’re aware of but don’t interact with often.
“Often we think of people from the ‘other side’ as mystical creatures who are so different from us,” he said. “We hope this will help people get a more holistic view of people who hold different political opinions from their own.”
FlipFeed, which has accumulated a few hundred users since it was released two weeks ago, also collects data on how and when users browse flipped feeds, and periodically generates survey questions about how users feel about the content they’re seeing.
That cache of data could answer intriguing questions, like whether being exposed to another political reality makes you more or less open-minded, but Saveski says the team intends to collect more data before diving into specific research questions.
After experiencing Twitter as Henri, I flipped again and found myself seeing the world as Megan, a communication specialist. Her feed is as different from Henri’s as imaginable — liberal politics, video games, and motor sports. The only thing that hasn’t changed is the sense of irreconcilable social conflict.
“Can we agree that this isn’t politics anymore?” tweets someone she follows. “That we’re are [sic] literally at war?”