The advent of social media has changed the way we communicate with the world around us. Its instant and omnipresent nature infiltrates every aspect of our lives. People are more connected than ever, with approximately 3.8 billion active social media users tweeting, sharing and posting across the globe. Consequently, the established platforms facilitating this mass interaction have fast become household names.
Social media has placed a wealth of knowledge at our fingertips. Figures from Ofcom show that over half of adults in the UK use it to keep up with the latest news. It’s true, you only have to glance at Twitter to discover the government’s latest set of lockdown measures - paired, of course, with a commentary from the people they govern.
In the age of information, unhindered by borders and barriers to access, you’d be forgiven for thinking that a balanced viewpoint would be the norm. Why then does this not seem to be the case?
The era of the echo chamber
There is a fear that social media is making us too insular. That we naturally seek out like-minded people with views and beliefs that reinforce our own, opting to exist in online echo chambers free of ideological challenge.
The issue is that this obstructs critical discourse. Homogenous online communities increase polarisation in society, ostensibly leading to extremist views on either side of the spectrum. This erosion of middle ground has seen hearty debate replaced with shouting matches.
Another loss is those voices that remain silent on topics that don’t make the cut in certain cosy online bubbles. Just think, we could be missing out on the next great mind in politics - if only they would extend their network.
The end result? We are less informed and less willing to trust the views of those who differ from our own.
The filter bubble effect
Echo chambers are only intensified by what internet activists call ‘filter bubbles’ - the idea that social media companies algorithmically prioritise content that matches an individual’s profile and online history. All of this is big money for the tech giants, who are incentivised by ensuring we remain engaged.
The danger here is when people don’t recognise the hidden agenda. One study found that over 60% of Facebook users interviewed were unaware of any news curation on the platform, instead trusting in what they see on their feeds.
The proliferation of fake news
Many argue that filter bubbles contribute to the proliferation of fake news. The 21st century’s answer to propaganda; the spread of deliberate misinformation via social media has been the cause of concern for many of late.
This is in part due to its political ramifications. The EU Referendum offers a clear cut example, with the Leave campaign repeatedly called out for weaponising false news on immigration in a bid to win the race. In fact, King’s College London found that leave supporters were most likely to hold incorrect beliefs around the impact of EU immigration on crime, employment levels and the quality of healthcare services in the UK.
Fake news serves to further divide the masses on social media. For those that believe and share these falsehoods unquestionably, it acts to strengthen their inner narrative; the snowball effect ensures that this has a community-wide effect.
On the other side of the spectrum are the sceptics. These people are wary and critical of any news shared online, holding the views of the ‘sharers’ in little regard. Although divided by perspective, the outcome for both parties is the same - they don’t believe a word each other says. Thus, the echo chambers and filter bubbles become harder to break.
There is evidence to suggest that the impact of echo chambers may have been overstated. A 2018 study found that only 8% of UK adults sampled are trapped in an echo chamber, with the remainder actively seeking out the wide range of sources available online. In this multimedia environment, social media is just one element of a diverse media diet.
Despite this, diversity of material doesn’t necessarily translate into changing opinions. Duke University reported that when Twitter users were confronted with alternative viewpoints, it only reaffirmed their initial beliefs.
The bottom line
It’s clear that individual platforms are home to communities that exclusively share like-minded information. This can have a limiting effect on one's worldview and lead to heated debates with those who oppose it. However, with online information on any topic now in abundance, it would be wrong to assume that all people base their views solely on what social media has to offer.
There is still much more to be done in this area and it’s the duty of both individuals and tech giants to ensure the masses don’t fall into the echo chamber trap. Facebook and Twitter have taken steps to promote more balanced and truthful conversations on their platforms, albeit with varying success.
As for the rest of us? Opening up our feeds is a sure way to open up our minds.