By Cameron McIntosh
The average student spends an astonishing 2 hours 26 minutes a day on social media, with 28% of 18-24 year olds citing it as their primary news source. The likes of Facebook, Instagram and Twitter have revolutionised the way we interact with others by placing the world at our fingertips. However, understanding the all-important algorithms that dictate what we see and, more significantly, what we don’t, is necessary to raising society’s consciousness to the problem of social media echo chambers.
More than any other field, politics has fallen victim to this pernicious online phenomenon: from the bitterly fought Brexit referendum, to the political earthquake that propelled Donald Trump to the White House, then to the hung parliament that saw Theresa May gamble away her Tory majority. Politics is more polarised than ever before and social media has become an amplifier of partisan division.
Algorithms divide people based on their likes and dislikes. From their favourite bands to the football team they support. While this seems a reasonable principle, it has had profound implications in the political sphere. Crucially users are separated based on labels such as remain and leave, Hillary and Trump, Labour and Tory. As a result, these identities have formed social media tribes that seemingly operate in parallel universes, insulated from dissenting opinion.
Politics is more polarised than ever before and social media has become an amplifier of partisan division.
It is natural to seek confirmation of one’s own views and we can all be guilty of this in many aspects of our lives. But having your views openly challenged and debated is vital to any functioning democracy. Skipping this process, via social media echo chambers, causes beliefs to become entrenched and turns opinion into dogma. This leaves radical opinion, and the scourge of ‘fake news’ to fester and make its way into mainstream discourse.
To combat the subversive influence of social media formulas, we need to be more proactive and sceptical during the time we spend scrolling through our newsfeeds. Firstly, it is vital to recognise your own bias. Whether that is your communist leanings or your penchant for Margaret Thatcher, know your own partiality. This will enable you to better understand why you receive targeted posts and to question the information you receive. Furthermore, get to know the leanings of the news sources you read. Every publication has a political leaning and maintaining a healthy degree of scepticism will enable you to distinguish between the facts and opinion.
Naturally we seek to read views that confirm our own, but by following and liking several pages that you disagree with, you will receive a more balanced view of events to better inform your own opinions. In addition, on sites such as Facebook, you are able to adjust your “news feed preferences” to establish viewing priorities and it would be prudent to add a few different viewpoints for balance. Further to this, learn to recognise fake news by checking the validity of your sources and be wary of opinions being presented as absolute truths.
The ubiquity of social media in modern life is, for the most part, positive. However, it is vital that users better inform themselves about the role of algorithms to thwart the dangerous rise of echo chambers.
Image: Elena Onwochei-Garcia