Social media has helped to create a more connected, yet disconnected world than ever before. In wake of the political upsets in 2016, it became more apparent that social media companies are primarily responsible for creating pockets of polarised echo chambers amongst online communities.
An echo chamber is a metaphorical description (derived from an acoustic echo chamber) of a situation in which preconceived information, ideas and beliefs are reinforced or amplified by means of repetition inside politics, culture, academia or a media environment.
In an echo chamber, subjects can find themselves caught up in an oblivious, self-contained bubble in which their own beliefs are consistently repeated back to them – this often results in a hardening of the individual’s belief system, which can lead to confirmation bias and tunnel vision reality.
Since levels of trust in mainstream news outlets have slumped to an all-time low, more people are turning to social media to get their fix of daily news. Therefore, it’s hardly surprising that social media has overtaken TV as the primary news source for the younger generations.
But who can blame us? As far as information is concerned, social media has an abundance of choice when compared to your standard mainstream TV channels. It’s allowed us to become far more selective over the news outlets that we follow and give credibility to – and rightly so.
The self-selecting nature of social media makes it easy for us to filter what we consume by following thought leaders and news outlets that align with our worldviews, whilst choosing to ignore those as we see fit.
Sites such as Google, YouTube, Facebook and Twitter are finely-tuned to our biases thanks to their highly-personalised algorithms that are programmed to show us content that is relative to our search history, our location and other previous activities.
It’s not rare to find that when you conduct a Google search on two different people’s devices, the search results are, in some cases, completely different. This gives us a good indication of how our search results are being manipulated.
The same goes for social media. When you check the trending topics on your Facebook or Twitter account, it’s almost guaranteed that someone else will have a completely different set of trending topics. Whilst one person sees war or famine trending, another person sees Kim Kardashian trending.
“It will be very hard for people to watch or consume something that has not, in some sense, been tailored for them” – Eric Schmidt
Whilst social media companies undoubtedly play a huge role in the development of echo chambers, it appears that there is other factors at play.
Humans have a natural tendency to congregate with like-minded groups of people to form modern-day tribes. At the same time, we tend to ignore or disregard the views of individual critics in opposing tribes, despite being somewhat aware of our own biases.
This instinctive behaviour has augmented itself in the virtual sense on social media. Everything from our Facebook friends to our YouTube subscriptions is shaping the way we see the world, be it consciously or sub-consciously.
Nowadays, it’s not uncommon to hear of individuals blocking others over differences in political views. In 2016 especially, many of us will have seen the following posted on social media: ‘If you voted for X, then delete/unfollow me’, or ‘if you voted for X, then you’re an *abusive insult*’.
We should be concerned that the normalisation of this behaviour could be nurturing a culture of self-censorship online. Individuals I’ve spoken to, at least, are becoming more concerned about expressing their views in fear that they will be marginalised for doing so.
Since it’s not likely, without collective action, we will be able to force social media companies to re-engineer their algorithms, we should seek to break the walls of our echo chambers by challenging our own views from time to time.
We must also realise that by ignoring this issue, we are depriving ourselves of new ideas, new subjects and new information. It comes down to being aware of the content we consume (and the creators), actively expanding our news sources and balancing our knowledge of important topics.
As Donny Miller once said:
‘In an age of information, ignorance is a choice.’