With 2018 now in full swing, some of us are assessing how we’re going with our New Year’s resolutions. If your personal pledge was to give up Facebook, you wouldn’t have been alone. In fact, more people wanted to quit social media in 2018 than smoking. It’s part of a growing trend of negative sentiment against social media in general.
Even Mark Zuckerberg’s personal challenge for this year is to ‘fix Facebook’. His resolution stems from the difficult and complex social and political challenges that Facebook currently faces. The list of issues the platform has accrued over its 14-year lifespan is long, and includes cyberbullying, mental health, privacy, intervention from sovereign states, and echo chambers.
But it’s not just Facebook. Social media, across the board, has been plagued with controversies in 2018, including:
- The tragic case of Dolly’s cyberbullying
- Logan Paul’s YouTube suicide video scandal
- Trump’s ‘fake news’ awards, and
- Testimony from Facebook, Google and Twitter to a congressional committee about extremist content and Russian interference in the 2016 US election
So clearly Zuckerberg is not wrong when he says, “the world feels anxious and divided”. Last year, social media jumped on the bandwagon to attack Australian MP Anne Aly for ‘refusing’ to lay a wreath on Anzac Day, when in fact the event never took place. There is a tendency for social media to reflect our own entrenched views developing echo chambers that drive social division and its negative consequences worldwide.
Social media and echo chambers
When social media first began to blossom in the late 90s and early 00s, it was seen as an opportunity to bring the world closer. Few foresaw that it would in fact create new divisions.
Centuries ago, before the printing press became ‘mainstream’, access to information was extremely difficult. The introduction of the printing press, then radio and television in the last century alleviated some of these access challenges – yet still information tended to be centralised and restricted to few voices.
The internet flipped the tables. While TV turned us from listeners to viewers of media content, the internet turned us from consumers to creators of media content. The internet and social media gives free access to decentralised information. Too much information. Finding out what’s relevant and reliable are the new challenges that we face.
Social media’s solution has been to develop algorithms that interpret our browsing patterns and filter the information we see into what seems most relevant. The problem? We are consistently shown similar opinions and political viewpoints, and are less exposed to different perspectives.
Sitting in a room where everyone agrees with us entrenches our opinions. It can groom and radicalise people to more extreme positions. If you’re locked in an asylum, you can imagine going a bit crazy yourself.
There’s strong empirical evidence that supports the existence of social media echo chambers. A Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) study of 376 million English-speaking Facebook users showed how users tend to develop strong and well-defined communities around the news outlet they support.
A separate PNAS study showed how tweets are densely shared and diffused within a group of similar ideology, and significantly less shared between groups of differing ideology.
The effect of these social media echo chambers is walled communities of groupthink that cannot accept differing opinions, in an already highly pluralised world. It’s a recipe for social division and extremism.
Echoing through history
But echo chambers weren’t invented by social media. Indeed, examples have existed, and caused social harm, under different guises throughout history.
The public, religious and scientific opposition against heliocentrism (the idea that the Earth revolves around the Sun) arose as an echo chamber during the Renaissance. Irrational nationalism is an old example of a nation-wide echo chamber developed through propaganda where those with different and ‘foreign’ opinions are shunned.
Traditional media has been complicit in creating these sorts of bubbles. Coverage of the US McMartin preschool trials was criticised for creating an “echo chamber of horrors” enacting a mesmerised witch hunt against the defendants.
However, these examples encompass echo chambers on a large, usually national, scale. Social media allows these echoes to form within smaller communities, developing intense bubbles of extreme opinion. The difference means today’s world is more and tribalised and divided into pockets.
Looking to the future
Former Facebook executive Chamath Palihapitiya has said that Facebook is “ripping apart the social fabric of how society works… No civil discourse, no cooperation; misinformation, mistruth.”
There’s no doubt social media is changing the world of today, fast forwarding an evolution in information and communication, and societal relations.
There is no stopping the speed of this change, and Australia is in the thick of it. It’s a trend we navigate every day at Currie as our work takes large shifts into the digital realm reflecting that 79% of Australians have a social media profile. We’re seeing more and more competition with traditional information sources with Millennials nearly two times more likely than older generations to look to social media as a news source.
At the heart of this (r)evolution is a question for us all: How can we – society, business and individuals – adapt and overcome the challenges of the medium to ensure it does bring the world together? How can we learn to manage issues like echo chambers more effectively as a community?
We can see a world where some of the problems resolve themselves, as future generations become naturally more desensitised to social media. In the future, social media natives may well be better equipped to handle the challenges that Facebook and Twitter throw at them. Millennials today take less notice of advertising and television content than Gen Xs and Baby Boomers. It’s likely we’ll see this trend repeat as future generations become desensitised to echo chambers and ‘fake news’.
But recognition and understanding of personal responsibility is essential too. Personal reflections on how we individually interact with social media – with outrage generators and ‘fake news’ that plays to our biases – is pivotal in creating a healthy relationship with social media.
As technology gets smarter, society also need to get smarter. Educating children, both as parents and through formal education, will help grow a generation well-adapted to social media. As the digital native generation grows older, research about the topic (including longitudinal studies) must become more robust, and better inform policy and guide regulation.
Just as Mark Zuckerberg has set his eyes on fixing Facebook this year, each and every one of us can aim to rebalance our relationship with social media in 2018. Stepping out of our comfort zones and moving beyond the echo chambers that sit comfortably with our views is a first step.
So how are you going with those New Year’s resolutions?