Media

Social media and the echo chamber trap

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The avenues through which we, particularly young people, receive our news and keep up with current affairs are changing and evolving. Mostly, they are becoming increasingly digitised, fast and varied. A recent Ofcom poll showed that just 35% of young people read a newspaper regularly, vs the 65% that use the internet, particularly social media, as a way of keeping up with current affairs.

Learning information from these platforms is very different than from traditional news outlets. For one, it’s faster – you can keep track of the latest developments as and when they occur. Also, because many people use more than one social media platform, they likely gather information from a plethora of sources, which could ultimately lead to being more informed.

Perhaps most importantly and most obviously, social media is by nature, social. It gives every single person the platform to voice their views. You only need to search the term ‘Covid-19’ or ‘BLM’ to see that thousands of people everyday use these sites to express their opinion.

So why is it, in an era where seemingly everyone has an opinion on politics and the chance to vocalise it, that we are still not seeing effective action being taken on pressing matters?

The sense of false security that social media gives many of us could be to blame. Paradoxically, in a world where you have information at your fingertips, it can be hard to find views that are different from your own. Friends and followers on social media are usually people who you’ve met from school, work or those who have similar interests to you. This makes it likely that large numbers will share views which fall on the same side of the spectrum.

What’s more, cookies and the rise of tailored adverts means you’re shown cherry-picked resources that are based on things you already like. So although the internet theoretically offers the chance to engage with millions of different opinions and perspectives, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to break out of the familiar.

Why does it matter? Because social media is no longer just used to look at cute pictures of cats and share funny anecdotes. It’s a place of real change and can be a force for good. But, if we are all constantly met with confirmation bias (the idea that our perceptions are reinforced by those around us), we lose out on the power the internet has to broaden our horizons and allow us to share our opinion where it counts.

It was only recently that the pledge to step outside of the ‘echo chamber’ became popular. Being stuck inside an echo chamber is the idea that you are only hearing the same perspectives and opinions again and again – and usually, these align with your own.

Echo chambers and confirmation bias are dangerous because they lull us into a false sense of stability and progress. When everyone around you agrees with what you are saying, it can give us the impression that our message has been effectively communicated, and no more needs to be done.

This trap is especially easy to fall into on social media, because of the digital nature of the conversation. Liking a post doesn’t necessarily mean a person has read and digested the content – but that’s easy to forget when success is measured in metrics.

Change requires action in the real world, as well as online. Little good will come from agreeing with your friends that action is required, without then taking it further.

It’s important to stay informed and be adamant for change even when you’re not surrounded by like-minded people. And, on the flip side, when you are surrounded by those who share your view, continuing to make sure you are challenging your own opinions and keeping an open mindset is crucial.

Social media offers exciting opportunities to create a well-informed and well-connected world, in ways which simply weren’t possible before, however, if we want real change, we can’t lose sight of the bigger picture.

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