January 31st 2017 | London | Juan Schinas Alvargonzalez
Graphic by Bartu Kaleagasi
Social networks are the defining innovation of this generation. They are a tool which has given us previously unimaginable levels of connectivity, as well as the ability to easily keep up to date with global news and specific issues that we care about.
Yet, in the midst of a discussion about the so-called “fake news” circulating throughout social media, little attention has been given to another serious problem: the detrimental side effect of our dependence on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and so on. Unknowingly, we have created – and consequently live in – digital political bubbles.
A polarisation of ideas
As many have noted, society has never been as politically polarised as it is today. In fact, studies show that we increasingly identify with a particular political party and view the opposite party as “dangerous”.
One reason for this phenomenon is that many of our choices in life are inherently political. We are less likely to be friends with people whose politics are wildly different from ours. We are less likely to live in a neighbourhood where our neighbours have drastically different ideologies from us. Income, background, and geography are all indicators of our politics. The more similar we are with those around us, the more we isolate ourselves from different political opinions. The result? We end up viewing these similar opinions as more “normal” than the rest, hence the polarisation.
Diagram by Washington Post
However, this is not the only factor in play. Even though this sort of polarisation has always existed, it is not an omnipotent force. After all, who has not been challenged on their opinions by colleagues, classmates, or old friends? In today’s world, social welfare policies mean that we no longer only interact with people from identical backgrounds and profiles. Middle class students go to the same public schools as low income students, increasing opportunities for minorities mean our offices are ever more diverse, and while racial segregation in housing is still present, it is much lower than it used to be.
This means that we interact daily with individuals who are quite different from us, being exposed to a variety of opinions. That is what makes for awkward dinners with everyone’s Marxist friend, and why at the end of the day we know and value different political standpoints from ours.
Social networks & algorithms
The advent of social networks has changed this dynamic of political tolerance. One of our most frequent and cherished pastimes is to scroll through our social network newsfeed, and with 2.32 billion people projected to own smartphones in 2017, the separation from political clemency could broaden.
This newsfeed, and our interaction with it, is of vital importance when it comes to our worldview, and hence, our political ideology. One might think that there is nothing political about funny videos or pictures from our friend’s night out. Indeed, not everyone’s feed is full of news articles. However, most social media users can attest to the fact that in between everyday posts, we also see content of a political nature.
Diagram by Dennis Jenders
Videos of refugees begging for help on the coast of Greece frequently popped up last year. So have articles about climate change and the need for action, and the day would not be complete without an article decrying the latest Trump buffoonery. The prevalence of this content varies depending on our individual preferences. However, even the smallest interaction is registered and used by the social network’s machine learning algorithms.
Our interaction with such political content determines the frequency with which we will see similar or relevant information again in our newsfeed. Our newsfeed “knows” what we want to see based on how we interact with it – perhaps the most prominent use of artificial intelligence in current times.
For example, I – along with only 46% of the world – believe climate change is the biggest threat we face today. I am interested in our fight for cleaner energy, which is why I frequently read and share information about it on social media.
My interaction with Facebook posts about climate change is extensive. Facebook’s algorithm can easily pick up on this and oh-so gracefully provide me the content I want in the form of relevant articles my friends have shared. It is unlikely that Facebook will show me articles shared by my friends that it deems less relevant to my interaction patterns. An article arguing against the closing of a coal mine, for example, is less likely to appear in my newsfeed. This is not simply because I do not follow pages that are most likely to publish it. It is because it will go against the “narrative” my clicks, likes, shares and comments have told Facebook I believe in.
Here lies the problem of our digital political bubble. Our perception of what is going on in the world is less influenced by everyday conversation with people who might not agree with us, and more influenced by the content of our social media which always agrees with us.
Photograph by Dominick Reuter
Our politics suffer from this dynamic because it inevitably reinforces our perception over others. I for one could read twenty articles on climate change in the course of a month, but not a single one on the negative economic and social impacts of environmental regulation (e.g. closing a coal mine in low-income areas). Am I not living in a bubble?
Let’s take another example, the previously mentioned refugee crisis. People reading this article will most likely have seen in their newsfeed a video of refugees stranded at sea; teary, desperate individuals trying to reach Europe’s shores. Or perhaps even a video condemning anti-refugee statements. A conservative voter in the United States, however, will have had a completely different set of information presented to them. They would have followed pages, people and newspapers that you and I have not. And their friends will have posted content that would not come across our screens.
The result of this disparity is that the perception these two people have over the refugee crisis is so vastly different, that is becomes almost incomprehensible to both why the other would have such an opinion. Thus, there is a direct link between our usage of social media and the current phenomenon of political polarisation.
Moreover, social networks like Facebook offer a platform for millions of media organisations to expand their content and bring in more traffic and revenue. This gives these news outlets and companies just one key incentive: to make us click on the article or video they just shared.
Studies have shown that the most reliable stimulator in our brain – the factor that is most likely to make us click on something – is anger. A video of a cat might make us think about it for a minute or two, but the emotion that it provokes is so minimal that it will not stay with us for long.
Article from Daily Mail
A video of a racist attack in the subway, however, will make us angry, and thus will have a far more significant impact. It will compel us to read about this episode in detail; to go see whether the attacker was apprehended, or whether bystanders helped. In other words, we will care more.
Generating anger is the most compelling way to engage with users. News sites who look to generate traffic through Facebook know this. That is why websites regularly post information that they know will make their readers angry, and prompt them to click, to “see more”.
The unintended consequence of this process, however, is that it serves to accentuate political polarisation. Not only do we perceive different realities through social media, but we also regularly see content that make us more impassioned and angrier.
United in diversity
The overall argument laid out is not one against the use of social media. Social media has been, overall, significantly beneficial for everyone involved. However, it is important to understand how websites like Facebook use our behaviour on their platform to predict what it is we want from them, and what will make us stay online more often.
While this may be good for us in some ways, since it allows us to see and read more content related to topics that genuinely interest us, it also means that we live in a digital bubble, shielded from wildly different point of views or arguments. The implications of these bubbles are serious. Many of the shocking political events we experienced in 2016 can be partly linked to voters dealing with a different set of facts, and therefore wildly different perceptions.
There is, however, a simple solution to burst our digital bubbles. We must make the conscious decision to listen to and read arguments which we do not agree with. The only way to do this is by inserting different content into our social media. Here is a list of conservative podcasts, pages and people to follow, and here is one for both conservative and liberal audiences. Enjoy!