03/02/2017 On Election Chat and Echo Chambers
If my Twitter feed was anything to go by, the last few election results were all but set in stone. As it happens, the results were spectacularly different to what my social feeds had led me to believe, and I was genuinely quite taken aback.
I’m not here to start a political debate. What I am here to start, however, is a debate about the social bubbles in which we choose to house ourselves.
I came across a paper that was published by a team at the School of Informatics and Computing at Indiana University, looking at “online filter bubbles” and if the way we use technology biases exposure to information. The results? “The diversity of information reached through social media is significantly lower than through searching.”
It makes total sense; like seeks like, as they say. Every time I hit follow on a person’s profile, I spend a few minutes reading their profile first. After all, why would I want to fill my timeline with stuff that I have no interest in and/or disagree with?
Similarly, if Facebook’s algorithms prioritise content based on past interactions, interests and other signals, it makes sense that only content of a certain type will show up on my newsfeed.
I like to think of myself as a pretty open person, happy to read opinions that are different to my own to inspire new thinking. But when most of my media consumption is through social, and my social feed is dictated by my choices and my online behaviour, the content I see will always swing a certain way.
Our need to find others like us is so innate that we’re not even aware of the fact that we’re building little echo chambers for ourselves. We pride ourselves on being able to use social networking to connect with people across the world, from different backgrounds but fail to acknowledge that – most of the time – we connected based on a common interest or belief.
So, do we risk exposing ourselves to a less diverse range of opinions by allowing social to drive our media consumption? If it’s so easy for us to exclude the views we disagree with and focus on the ones we like, are we running the risk of forming less informed opinions?
Perhaps something like FlipFeed can help diversify media consumption? The Chrome Extension, developed by researchers at the MIT Media Lab, allows users to replace their Twitter feed with that of another Twitter user. Feeds are selected based on inferred political leaning (broadly – left or right), so a left-leaning feed could be replaced with that of a right-leaning Twitter account, allowing the user to explore the media the other person may consume.
I’d like to say I sat and pondered upon this for a while. But instead, I opened my Twitter feed, saw a rather awful argument between someone I follow and someone with terrifyingly misogynistic views and decided that maybe it’s safer to stay inside my little social bubble after all…