The Political Danger of the Online Echo Chamber
As the events of the last 18 months have demonstrated, we are living in uncertain times. We can’t seem to trust polls anymore and nobody is quite sure where it’s all gone wrong. There have been many theories floating around about why we are where we are now but I think it’s important we explore the effect of social media, in particular the echo chamber effect.
There’s no doubt that social media like Twitter, Facebook and Instagram have changed the way we view the world. The question we need to be asking ourselves right now is that change for the better? Are we informing ourselves with the right information or are we just existing in bubbles of people with the same views as our own?
The ‘Online Shy’ Tory
The obvious example in this case would be the recent presidential election but I believe we should examine events a little further back. For example the British general election in May 2015. During the run up to election day, many of the major polling companies has the Labour party as favourites to be elected. In fact of the 75 polls where one party was predicted the take a majority, 56% of these predicted Labour to win. Many English political commentators seemed pretty sure about this. Personally I tended to believe it as well given I don’t know anyone who would have voted for the Conservative Party. Then the exit poll came out and everyone was shocked. It predicted that the Conservatives would win a majority and they did. My stand out memory of that night was how shocked social media was in general. People couldn’t get over what had happened. “Nobody I knew was going to vote Conservative” was something I saw over and over again. Substitute “Conservative” with “Leave” or “Trump” and you can describe most of what’s happened in 2016. Herein lies the problem, we’re not exposed to what other people really think anymore.
Algorithms manipulate our newsfeeds to show us similar opinions to our own. Facebook advertisements often link to websites it thinks you like. For me, Facebook is consistently showing me clothes and shoes it thinks I would like (and oftentimes it’s correct). It does the very same thing with newspaper articles and videos. It shows us the news it thinks we want to see as opposed to things that we actually need to see. Our twitter and Instagram feeds are entirely self-selected, so we tend to follow and be followed by those we are similar to and align closely politically.
What’s even more problematic is the amount of fake news that is currently streaming around Facebook. Fake news may only make up a small percentage of all the news on Facebook but given that 40% of American adults now get their news solely from the site, it’s important that the fake news gets weeded out. Of course fake news didn’t get Donald Trump elected by itself but it most certainly did not help.
So how do we avoid the echo chamber? It’s a difficult problem to tackle. We don’t want to follow people on social media who have different opinions to us, especially if these views are racist, sexist, homophobic or transphobic. Or if that will mean we spend half of our time picking fights. The problem with ignoring opposing views is that oftentimes we are then led to believe that our views are the majority views. It can set a dangerous precedent as if people believe that their views are the majority, they’ll work less on a campaign. For example 46.6% of the American population did not vote in the presidential election. There are many reasons for this but one of the major ones is that some Americans don’t believe that voting matters. Now if even 10% of those that didn’t vote, had voted – then it might have changed the course of the election. My point is that assuming that your vote doesn’t matter is a form of complacency of the worst kind.
We have to take ourselves out of our online spheres now more than ever. The people you follow on Twitter or Facebook don’t tell the whole story of what’s going on today. In fact we need to be fact checking claims and news stories even more than we did before. There is a simple method to fact check; if you see a claim that looks suspicious then google it and check its sources. The more people that do that, the less fake news will be spread around the internet. It’s also important to get the correct information out to those that do not use social media. It’s easy to forget that not everyone is on Twitter or Facebook. With that in mind, it’s important that we actually talk to people and discuss ideas and opinions as much as we can.
There’s no doubt that the world is a pretty scary place right now, or on the edge of becoming one. What’s important now is that we arm ourselves with the facts and the right information. We need to be as empathetic as we can and keep hope burning. Social media does not represent the real world its entirety and we should take care to remember that. We must remove our heads from the echo chamber because we risk deafening ourselves with our own views.
Donald Trump is in the White House and the far right is on the rise in Europe.
We can’t afford to live in the echo chamber anymore.
Rachel O’Neill | Features Editor
[Image Credit: Times Higher Education]