The social media echo chambers that we all inhabit

March 20, 2018

 

It is clear that social networks have strong points, both at a personal and professional level. One of them is the speed with which we learn the most important news of the day. The information is shown to us on our wall or in our timeline constantly shared by contacts or friends. We learn about the day’s headlines from social networks instead of from the media, because someone from our environment has shared it on their social networks. This information that is given to us, without any action needed, is one of the great advantages of social media; we are constantly kept informed about the current events of the day. However, therein lies the biggest problem with social media – it increasingly acts as a form of confirmation bias which doesn’t  advance our own political knowledge but instead to feed us opinions that we already agree with, thus further propagating the idea that “we” are right and “they” are wrong. Social media acts as an “ideological echo chamber” and – with Twitter particularly – we follow the same strategy that we use with the rest of the media: we prefer to read people with whom we agree or who have similar opinions to ours.

 

That said, it sounds quite harmless, but perhaps the most pernicious aspect of this way of deciding the contents to which we are exposed is clearer if we express the same idea in negative: we choose who to follow in such a way that we do not have to see a diversity of opinions. Social networks allow us to do this on a scale far superior to traditional media, to drown out any dissonant voice. The choice of whom to follow is a completely natural way of behaving, more still when taking into account that social networks are leisure tools, but it puts us at risk of being locked in an environment that reinforces our prejudices. We may see or share a message with an idea that disgusts us, but, usually, we do it to ridicule and almost always do so by choosing the most grotesque version of the ideas of others. In social networks we cannot see the weighted and reasonable part of the other side. This is also not simply a benign issue that can be ignored – researchers believe that social networks favour political polarisation and exacerbate tribalism. As academic Cass Sunstein puts it “[e]cho chambers breed extremism. If you hang out with like-minded people, you’ll get more confident and more extreme—and the group will get more unified. Pretty soon, people in different echo chambers live in different political universes”.

 

There is a more far-reaching reflection that is impossible to avoid, especially in the context of the technological solution that sometimes seems to surround us. The Internet does not fundamentally change who we are or what we seek in communication with others. Yes, it is true that it offers us possibilities that a few years ago were unthinkable and that it opens us almost forcibly to a world of which previously we only saw a very small piece. But the truth is that most of the time we lock ourselves in our comfortable bubble that is now bigger and denser than ever before. Of course, we can take a conscious action to break that routine and follow new people for the mere fact that we disagree with them, or follow the politicians we do not like in order to have a more balanced political debate in the messages that reach us, but that is no different than thinking that all these years we could have read several newspapers to compensate for the ideological biases that we have.

 

This idea of growing echo chambers comes in the background of a poor period for Twitter itself – a lack of user growth is threatening the once thriving company with a $116 million loss being reported in July of last year whilst Sunstein’s prediction of extremism is coming true – Jacob Rees Mogg has been caught in protests that turned violent in a speech at the University of the West of England whilst the problem has been widespread in the United States. A solution has to be found to lessen the tribal atmosphere that we currently inhabit.

 

 

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First published in 1965, InQuire is the University of Kent student newspaper.

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