The invention of the internet and social media made it possible to connect with people across the globe, and made information infinitely more accessible. But is that information we access always providing the whole story, or is what we consume online often filtered and one-sided?
Social media is a bit of a marmite situation – it’s got its lovers and its haters. In this article I wanted to discuss one of the downsides and potential dangers to come out of social media and the internet as a whole, which is personalisation.
Personalisation. It’s a positive word. We use it to describe something bespoke, something tailored to fit you and your personality or interests. When it comes to the news and exposure to political standpoints, however, personalisation is not always a good thing.
Echo chambers and filter bubbles
There are many concerns about what’s popularly referred to as echo chambers, or ‘filter bubbles’. These environments are where you will predominantly encounter ideas of like-minded individuals and where your own beliefs and opinions will be reinforced and amplified by your social media feeds. Echo chambers insulate the person against any challenging or opposing views that rebut their own. They have the potential to close people off to diversity of thought and open-mindedness. The echo chamber can make a person misinformed with a sense of distorted reality. Some say opposing sides of political arguments can be further polarised against one another as a result of this concept, and divisions can be strengthened.
Echo chambers and filter bubbles are created by either pre-selected personalisation or self-selected personalisation. The former (pre) involves computer algorithms selecting the content you see based on what you’ve already shown interest in, your behaviours online etc. The algorithms chooses what content you’re served, based on what it thinks you want to see, even though you may not have deliberately chosen to view it. This is a concept often referred to as a filter bubble.
Self-selection involves choosing to interact with only like-minded individuals and opinions online. It results from a term called confirmation bias: a natural human tendency to search for, favour and recall more information that is aligned with our pre-existing beliefs. This type of personalisation happens with traditional media as well as when interacting with people in real life. People tend to talk to people who share their views or choose to read newspapers/magazines they like and only pick the articles to read which interest them. This can create a self-selected echo chamber of ideas.
The effect of both pre and self-selected personalisation exclusively, where no efforts are made to get others’ points of view, can result in people experiencing highly contrasting worlds of information. The type of content one person consumes may be totally different to another person.
Increased use of social media as a news source
As the Guardian wrote in July last year, more and more people (young people especially) are turning to social media for their source of the news “but the trend isn’t harmless”. With fake news and inaccuracy in so much of what we consume on social media, this ever-increasing gravitation people have towards social networks for the news does not come without its risks.
The possible ramifications of filter bubbles and echo chambers
Cass Sunstein – a legal scholar who popularised the term echo chamber – argued that long term exposure to a singular viewpoint may lead to extremism. Some also think filter bubbles and echo chambers may be problematic in the democratic landscape, as people aren’t exposed to enough diversity of thought to come to a fully informed opinion. The polarisation of political groups nowadays is also widely attributed to these digital concepts.
Is there a real need to be concerned about these matters?
There is a lot of discrepancy regarding whether these issues of content personalisation really require concern. An Internet Policy Review paper of 2016 entitled ‘Should we worry about filter bubbles?’ concluded that “in spite of the serious concerns voiced – at present, there is no empirical evidence that warrants any strong worries about filter bubbles.” Axel Bruns (writer of ‘Are filter bubbles real?’) also argues that these concepts of echo chambers and filter bubbles don’t warrant any strong worry. Bruns says the concepts are based on “flimsy foundations” of primarily anecdotal evidence and that the “impacts on society are significantly overblown.” He claims that polarisation of political groups predominantly stems simply from human nature as opposed to technology.
Ultimately, I think social media can be an amazing place to open your mind to new ideas, to spread awareness of issues and connect to so many different people to learn new things. It could be a place which inspires a more tolerant society of well-informed individuals, if used correctly.
The point to remember is that we must try to expose ourselves to a range of opinions and beliefs that challenge what we already think. Although confirmation bias is innate in us as humans we can push ourselves to seek new ideas that we dislike. We can also like and comment on things we don’t agree with online to combat any algorithms.
The most important thing to take away from this topic is that we should all aim to expand our minds and stay open to new ideas.