in Current Affairs

Here’s what you should do to escape the social media echo chamber

Nobody expected Donald Trump to become President-Elect Trump, not even his own team. The polls were wrong, the pundits were wrong but one of the most incredible things is 55 percent of Democrats and 58 percent of Republicans have very unfavourable views of the other party. Over half of both parties are “fearful” or “afraid” of the opposite party.

This last statistic is almost as incredible as Mr Trump winning the election: most voters on each side regard the other as something to be feared.

This is certainly a sentiment I’m familiar with: in May 2015 I found it inconceivable anyone could vote for David Cameron’s Conservatives (they won a majority) and in June this year I found it very difficult to see Brexit as an appealing option (that won as well).

The 2015 General Election election, Brexit and now President Trump has left me in no doubt the failure to understand the effect of the social media “echo chamber” is a serious cause of our collective failure to understand the opposition’s point of view.

There’s been collective outpouring in the media in recent days navel-gazing about how we got into this mess, but the more important question here is how do we get out of this mess?

Enter the echo chamber

Whilst I just gently mocked media navel-gazing about how we go to this state of affairs, to understand how to get out the echo chamber we need to understand how we got in the thing in the first place.

The idea of the echo chamber has been around for a long time (this paper was published in 1966), but social media has amplified its prevalence. An echo chamber is:

A phenomen whereby groups of people in possession of homogenous ideas exist in isolation to those who think differently from them.

This becomes a problem when:

  1. People have Facebook friends who agree with them on political issues.
  2. Facebook becomes people’s number one news source.

If you get your news from Facebook and everyone on Facebook agrees with you, you can see how easily you could think the opposing party are outright dangerous.

The problem is heightened by Facebook’s news feed algorithm, which prioritises the most outrageous and click-friendly stories, rather than the “best” or most accurate.

Facebook’s news feed algorithm prioritises clickbait (if other users respond well to a post you’re more likely to see – so clickbait does best). Publishers quickly realised the best performing clickbait is the most outrageous articles.

Traditional publishers push this as far as they can: Vox and Daily Mail feel their feeds with fairly low quality stuff. This is annoying at best and mildly negative at worst, but at least content published in mainstream media outlets is true most of the time (mind the Mail is hardly a bastion of the truth).

False stories are the best clickbait

All links show the same on Facebook, and similarly all news sources all show up the same way, regardless of their credibility, so new pages and sources have sprung up, unrestrained by inconveniences such as “the truth” and happy to post the most outrageous clickbait possible.

Turns out the most outrageous clickbait possible is stories which are made up.

Buzzfeed found three large right and left wing Facebook pages published false stories 38 and 20% of the time respectively.

When Facebook is your primary news source, every third story you see being false becomes a problem. Buzzfeed cites these pages as one of the leading causes of Mr Trump’s rise:

The right-wing pages [and their false stories] are among the forces — perhaps as potent as the cable news shows that have gotten far more attention — that helped fuel the rise of Donald Trump.

Another Buzzfeed story epitomises the mess we’re in as entrepreneurial teenagers from Macedonia launched over 140 political blogs where they publish false Trump stories “for a easy way to make money” through ad revenue. One group of teens reported their sites launched this year have been averaging a million views a month.

When your news consumption has evolved to clickbait that’s evolved to stories trying so hard to be outrageous they make up the most outrageous thing possible, we have a problem.

Facebook produces homogenous thinking

Is Facebook to blame here? It probably needs to take some responsibility for offering partisans on both sides:

A limitless, on-demand narrative fix, occasionally punctuated by articles grounded in actual world events, when those suit their preferences.

Facebook has been roundly criticised, but it seems unwilling to change. Mark Zuckerberg said last week “the idea that fake news on Facebook… influenced the election in any way is a pretty crazy idea”.

I’d argue it’s utterly implausible that fake stories on people’s primary news source doesn’t influence their thinking. Facebook must be treated not solely as a technology company, as it would like, but as a technology/news distribution hybrid. It’s got to start taking some responsibility for what people share on their platform and can’t keep rewarding false reporting.

Apparently Facebook was concerned about this but declined to change anything, for fear of a backlash. News this morning has surfaced of movement towards action, but blocking the worst offenders still doesn’t fix the underlying echo chamber problem.

So – if Facebook isn’t going to help, how can you and I get out of this mess?

How do we get out of this mess?

Escaping the echo chamber requires recognising its existence and actively fighting it. It’s actually pretty straightforward from there. Here are some things you can do:

Stop using Facebook as a news source. Seriously, this mostly solves the problem in one stroke. Go back to seeing pictures of babies, parties and cats instead. I’d even argue you should just outright turn off your news feed. Use News Feed Eradicator and messenger.com.

Don’t use Twitter as your only news source. Twitter is still good for breaking news and doesn’t feature the same popularity algorithm, but it can still be bad if you’re only following people you agree with.

Actively look for people you disagree wth. Replace your Facebook news consumption with a range of quality news from a range of reputable outlets. This is harder in that it’s less convenient than just loading up Facebook, but bookmarking two or three sites isn’t especially burdensome. Podcasts are a convenient way of getting news, too.

Here are some sources I’d recommend:

Liberal

Conservative

  • The Economist (classical liberal rather than conservative; the magazine is very good and worth considering).
  • National Review (seen this recommended a lot recently).
  • Manhattan Institute (again, only recently picked this up; describes itself as a free market think tank).

Others

(You may be able to tell: I’m not a conservative. I’ve been trying to find who the really good Conservative commentators are. Still on the look out, but added a bunch of people to my reading list using this Quora question. Let me know if you have recommendations).

This is definitely a fixable problem

So, things are pretty bad.

Fortunately, whilst this is a serious problem it’s also easy to fix. Diversify your news consumption away from Facebook and you go a long way to fixing this.

Hopefully the options here can continue the Facebook conversation and start a movement in the right direction. Until then, we’re left with President Trump and an incomprehensible political opposition.

Enjoy.