Digital Bubbles

Digital Bubbles

How social media affects our politics

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.


Reinforcement thinking

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.

They may have seen, for example, an article about alleged sex crimes perpetrated by asylum applicants in Germany during New Year’s Eve, or another article showing ISIS terrorists infiltrating refugee flows and then carrying out attacks in Europe.

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.


Profit-driven sensationalism

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!

Edited by Bartu Kaleagasi and Xavier Ward

EU Referendum

What happens after Brexit?

UK votes to leave the EU, Cameron resigns as PM.

June 29th 2016 | London | Francisco Morales & Bartu Kaleagasi

Photograph by Reuters

In the aftermath of the EU referendum that shocked the world, many are left wondering how it happened, and what will come of it.

The UK had been a leading member of the European Union since 1973, bringing both economic prosperity and global influence to the country. So how did almost 52% of British voters end up supporting Brexit, and what are the future economic and political implications?


A demographic divide

As the polls had suggested before, there was a large difference in voting patterns by age. Whilst almost 75% of young people voted to Remain, 60% of the elderly voted to Leave.

On social media, millennials have been voicing out their qualms with the way the results went down, and especially with regards to the older generation. As young voters are the ones who will face the long term consequences of this historic vote, for better or worse, they feel understandably let down by the outcome.

Diagram by BBC

However, youth turnout was also much lower than that of older age groups. Although this is not a surprising trend as far as elections are concerned, a referendum with repercussions of this magnitude should have as much informed input as possible in order for direct democracy to serve its intended purpose.

On the other hand, overall participation was much higher than in last year’s General Election, with 72% of the nation casting their vote. This was one of the highest turnouts in recent years.


United Kingdom or Kingdom of England & Wales?

Another notable difference was between the United Kingdom’s various countries and regions. Whilst England (53.2%) and Wales (51.7%) voted to Leave, Scotland (62%) overwhelmingly voted to Remain, as did Northern Ireland (55.7%).

In England, many cities including London, Oxford, Cambridge, Bristol, Manchester, Liverpool, and Brighton voted to Remain, whereas less urban regions were mostly in support of Leave.

EU membership was one of the most important parts of Scotland’s vote to stay in the UK in 2014, and the Better Together campaign had even used it as their main argument against Yes Scotland. Our previous analysis on the issue can be found here.

Diagram by The Telegraph

In fact, just today, Scottish MEP Alyn Smith demanded that Scotland be given the right to remain a member of the EU, parting ways with its southern neighbours in disagreement over their future. Likewise, SNP MP Angus Robertson told Parliament that they have “absolutely no intention whatsoever of seeing Scotland taken out of Europe” and that they refuse to be part of a “diminished little Britain”.

Indeed, since the UK outside of the EU is not the same country as Scotland voted to stay in, it is likely that they will get another independence referendum in the next few years. On top of this, the prospect of Irish unification has also been gaining momentum, with Sinn Fein calling for a national poll on the day of Brexit.

It seems then that the EU referendum was fundamentally a choice between (a) the United Kingdom as a leading member of the EU, and (b) the Kingdom of England & Wales. Perhaps such a constitutionally significant decision should have required a super-majority of 60%, rather than having been decided by a simple majority margin of 3-4%, vulnerable to the whim of public opinion.


The immigration question

Immigration was perhaps the most contentious and important factor for voters heading into the referendum, and one in which both campaigns intentionally misinformed the public.

Many voters, particularly in the lower-income areas, appeared to believe that a vote for Leave was actually a vote for less immigration, rather than anything to do with the EU. Yet, the actual position that the UK will take with regards to immigration is uncertain at this moment.

Boris Johnson, likely to become the next Prime Minister, suggested that Britain would only make changes in its laws and taxation, claiming that immigration would actually be left untouched. Tory MEP and Leave campaigner Daniel Hannan also echoed similar sentiments, stating that free movement of labour between the UK and the EU would be likely to remain.

Photograph by Alamy

This strikes an odd chord among both Leave and Remain voters, as it seems almost impossible that the EU would agree to give UK the benefits of staying in, without any of the obligations that come with it. Britain would be enjoying an incredibly luxurious position within Europe, without having to take on many of the burdens that other EU nations do.

It is certainly regrettable that a lot of misinformation seems to have been bred by both campaigns, and it is even more regrettable that the picture on immigration is no clearer than before. The tensions that come from immigration in the UK seem to have been rising ever since 2004 saw the enlargement of the EU, whereby many Eastern European countries joined and were thus given the opportunity to move into Europe.

This growing resentment for immigration was then substantially amplified by the Syrian refugee crisis, and many people could not agree on the difference between war refugees and economic migrants. As it stands, the statistics suggest that there has been very little correlation, if any at all, between British wages and higher levels of immigration.

However, for many, the issue is also a matter of cultural clash between western values and foreigners, which is an argument with somewhat more merit than the economic one.


Trade and finance

One of the key concerns from people in the Remain camp was how trade would continue to prosper in a post-Brexit economy.

Leaving the EU would affect trade substantially, and that was one of the main reasons why Scotland voted to remain. Excluding trade with England, the EU is one of Scotland’s two largest trading partners, the other one being the US.

Now, with Brexit being a reality, Scotland will not only call for independence, but also seek to remove itself from the arrangement of leaving the EU. Nicola Sturgeon has already entertained the idea of the former, and she has confirmed that the latter will happen in whatever way possible.

If it invokes Article 50, the UK will have to seek the advice of its best legal and financial experts in negotiations with the EU. The clause, which finds its origin in the Lisbon Treaty, triggers a 2 year period in which the member state must negotiate its deal to leave the union.

If no deal is reached within that time frame, the UK must leave the EU without any trade agreements, reverting back to WTO standard tariffs. Essentially, the economy would collapse. However, this period can be extended upon mutual agreement between the UK and the EU, so that scenario would be unlikely.

Photograph by Georg von Wedel-Goedens

Evidently, striking a deal with the EU which will please the general public is going to be a difficult task, and particularly so in a time frame of just 2 years. It is likely that the UK will negotiate to stay in the single market, much like Norway, accepting all of the EU obligations that come with it.

The United States, who had previously claimed that Britain would be at the “back of the queue” to strike a trade deal with them if they chose to leave the EU, has now softened their stance and expressed eagerness to co-operate. With trade partners like China, Britain is not limited to trading within the EU, but it is almost certain that both the EU and the UK will still need each other for economic prosperity.

Another worrying issue with the post-Brexit economy is that of the financial services industry – banks, accountants, corporate lawyers, and investment managers – all of which will be unable to provide their services to the EU without the UK’s membership. London could risk seeing its status as Europe’s financial centre be taken away by others like Frankfurt, and its global reputation be taken over by others.

Unless some sort of exemption is granted to London, Brexit presents a huge risk and danger for the same industry that provides 12% of Britain’s GDP. To that end, it is certainly no surprise that London voted emphatically to remain.


Economic depression?

It is worth noting, however, that Britain’s trading power is certainly not a small one. The aftermath of Brexit only gives evidence to such, as financial and trade markets crashed all over the world.

Most notably, the Pound reached its lowest value in over 30 years, France overtook the UK as the world’s 5th largest economy, and S&P downgraded its credit rating from AAA to AA.

Since Monday morning, the pound has continued to fall, despite assurances by George Osbourne, the Chancellor, that the economy would stabilise. The level of fear and uncertainty prevailing over financial markets has given Leave supporters further cause to pause their celebrations in the meantime. A country in isolation, in a world of increasing globalisation, may indeed find itself struggling to keep afloat.

Photograph by Reuters

Yet, some economists have spoken out against these observations and suggested that the economic effects will not be as drastic as the Remain camp makes it sound. In their view, the British economy has faced far worse in the past, and so has the Pound itself, as seen in the 1970s when it fell to a third of its value.

Reassuringly, a multitude of large firms have remained resilient in continuing to do business in the UK and braving out the effects of Brexit. This comes after a period where even HSBC, one of the UK’s most prominent banks, were in talks to move their headquarters to Hong Kong.

As it appears, the economic future of the UK and the EU may not be as bleak as some regard it, but there is no conclusive answer at this moment in time. It will depend largely on what sort of deals are negotiated, and how much international business the UK can continue to attract.


Political turmoil

Over the weekend, several anti-Brexit protests took place, with millions voicing a strong sense of dissatisfaction at the Leave campaign’s misinformation, at tabloids for their highly anti-EU and dishonest approach towards the referendum, and at the false promises of prominent campaigners.

For instance, the Leave campaign’s pledge to spend Britain’s weekly EU payments on the NHS was refuted by Nigel Farage, sparking public outcry at the perceived change of position.

Whilst it is worth noting there were very realistic and noble reasons to vote Leave, it appears that a large amount of the public were grossly misinformed on issues like immigration. Both the UK and Europe are seeing an increase in xenophobia, racism, and populism, and Brexit appears to have only exacerbated this hostility. As of last Wednesday, the police and media have reported a large spike in the number of hate crimes targeted at foreigners living in the UK, particularly in England.

Whose fault is it, however? As Krugman pointed out, it appears “the big mistakes were the adoption of the Euro without careful thought about how a single currency would work without a unified government, the disastrous framing of the Euro crisis as a morality play brought on by irresponsible southerners, and the establishment of free labour mobility among culturally diverse countries with very different income levels, without careful thought about how that would work”.

Photograph by Jeff J Mitchell

Perhaps a Remain win would have dampened criticism of the EU, but not for long. It appears that some of the long-term issues which exist as a result of the European project have far-reaching consequences that Brexit only brought to the forefront of discussion.

Inside Britain, political turmoil is afoot. Among the Conservatives and Labour, campaigning for either side of the referendum has divided the parties in two. This was clearly evidenced by David Cameron’s resignation as Prime Minister, as well as the Labour Party’s coup against Jeremy Corbyn, which saw over 25 resignations and a vote of no confidence by a margin of 172 to 40 MPs.

Politicians from both camps are now treating each other as traitors to the British public, at a time when unity is most essential. As support for the two main political parties continue to dwindle in the face of modern challenges, a worrying cloud is cast over Europe.

Perhaps a new form of politics is necessary to see this wave of nationalism and rejection of globalisation through. The solution may in fact come from Britain’s youth, who have shown interest in leading a unified Europe.


Future scenarios

Since the fallout of Brexit, despite Cameron’s statement that there would be no such thing, a second referendum has been petitioned by those unsatisfied with the result, reaching over 3 million signatures over the weekend.

In media, several reports have surfaced of Leave voters who seem to be regretting their decision, many of whom voted out of protest, rather than actually expecting to win the referendum. Once again, there comes the argument that constitutional decisions should require a qualified majority of at least 60%.

Parliament is sure to be discussing these matters shortly, but developments on this front seem unlikely. As Cameron is set to step down in October, whoever steps into his shoes will seek to invoke Article 50 and start negotiations with the EU. If Boris Johnson is indeed the next Prime Minister, his over-optimism about the future, as evidenced by his latest column on the referendum, is bound to hit the brick wall of reality.

Photograph by European Parliament

On the other hand, many commentators suggest that Brexit will never actually happen, despite the referendum’s result. In that view, both the UK and the EU have simply too much to lose, and the margin was too tight for such a drastic outcome.

This points towards several possible scenarios: (a) Parliament simply votes against invoking Article 50, (b) Parliament calls for an early General Election, giving Labour and Liberal Democrats a chance to reject the referendum, or (c) Parliament negotiates with the EU, and then announces a second referendum on the precise terms of exit. In the latter case, it is likely that Remain would win by a substantial margin.

Unfortunately, direct democracy only works if everyone is well-informed and rhetoric is shot down by facts. For now, one thing is certain: the EU will continue its project to improve the lives of 400m+ people, regardless of the UK’s outcome.