Breaking out of the social media echo chamber



'Who are we voting for?' my son asked me in the days leading up to the election.

Facebook like iconsI smiled; he'd asked the same question when he voted for the first time a few years earlier, in a state election. But if I hadn't known him any better — he has a reasonable grasp of current affairs and has wondered aloud about whether to vote for fringe groups like the Help End Marijuana Prohibition (HEMP) Party — I might have frowned instead, for it's too easy these days to influence another person's political, religious and social choices.

There's good reason for this: though the internet has stretched and expanded the number of people and places we have access to, it has also constrained the range of ideas and opinions to which we're exposed. Research findings published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences earlier this year found that Facebook users tend to read and share information that reinforces their own beliefs.

The result is the formation of so-called 'echo chambers', in which groups of people in possession of homogenous ideas exist in isolation to those who think differently from them.

It's not new, this tendency to congregate with like-minded people. But the online landscape — the sheer magnitude of content, the social isolation often experienced by people living vicariously through their computers, the aggressiveness with which ideologies are being marketed — makes us more susceptible than ever to the sometimes narrow set of beliefs espoused by the people we interact with.

This phenomenon is not entirely the fault of the algorithms used by social media sites to ensure users receive content (including adverts) curated to their perceived interests; also to blame is the erosion of good, factual journalism, which in the past delivered trustworthy information upon which people could build their own educated opinions.

As The Guardian's editor-in-chief, Katherine Viner, noted in her feature on technology's disruption of the truth, some journalists no longer feel it necessary to check their sources in order to report their claims as fact. Moreover, newsprint is being increasingly taken over by comment and opinion.

Couple this with Facebook's role as the world's leading social media source of news — and the increasing tendency among our politicians to use fear as a method of governance — and the echo chamber shrinks and becomes more deafening still.


"One acquaintance announced during the election campaign that he'd summarily unfriended someone who'd posted 'one too many' Liberal Party videos."


This phenomenon has been particularly noticeable in the past month, with the emotion whipped up by the Brexit campaign, Australia's federal election and a spate of shocking, apparently Isis-related killings.

Misinformation fed to UK voters as 'fact' — and spread by supporters online — was later acknowledged by campaigners to be untrue: the idea that the £350 million saved on EU membership would go to the National Health Service instead; that immigration from Europe would be reduced. In Australia, One Nation leader Pauline Hanson tapped into people's latent fear of Muslims — sparked by the rise of Isis — to find her way back into Parliament, while both major parties stuck by their asylum seeker boat turn-back policies in an effort to attract votes.

Across the world, Isis itself is luring new recruits as they log into their own social media echo chambers, implanting their vulnerable, misinformed, easily moulded minds with the seeds of hatred and violence.

My own Facebook feed has given me some insight into the ways in which social media might work as an echo chamber. One acquaintance announced during the election campaign that he'd summarily unfriended someone who'd posted 'one too many' Liberal Party videos; another repeatedly shared rumours about 'ungrateful' Muslim immigrants who had 'raped and thieved and caused bloodshed' in Europe; a third castigated me for eating meat.

I'm still friends with all these people (and none of them has unfriended me): not because I agree with their opinions, but because I don't want to sculpt for myself a hermetically sealed cell in which every single person I encounter has precisely the same ideas and principles as I do. Moreover, I see this open expression of viewpoints as an opportunity to debate, to correct people where they are factually wrong, and to potentially resolve issues of concern.

It's a philosophy that has worked for me personally — I've changed the way I think thanks to some of the posts I've seen and the comments I've received from friends; and it works globally, too: if you can radicalise people on the internet — Isis supporters, Muslim haters, maybe, even, meat eaters — then surely you can reform them on the internet, too. But first the chamber must be filled with dissenting viewpoints.

As for my son, though he's grown up in an echo chamber of sorts — for what else is a home if not a crucible of the parents' ideas and values? — I didn't exert my influence on him on election day, for this would have put me in a position of undemocratic power. I told him instead to read widely and to listen and to use his brain. I just hope he made the right choice.


Catherine MarshallCatherine Marshall is a Sydney-based journalist and travel writer.

Topic tags: Catherine Marshall, Facebook, Brexit, ISIS, Pauline Hanson



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Existing comments

An oft repeated refrain by commentators Catherine. And one I tend to agree with. As a bit of an experiment I checked our mutual friends in Facebook. We know enough Jesuits to form a quorum and only one woman!!! My FB network is bold enough to include supporters of the Australian Liberty Alliance, a couple of Opus Dei clergy, and a sprinkling of writers who would prefer Quadrant to Eureka Street. I have an advantage as a photographer of aiming my lens at both sides of the House and the. Senate. However I should confess the only PMs with whom I have had a selfie taken are Kevin and Julia. Tony and Malcolm just don't mix in my circles of real world connection. I manage my FB feed tightly and know where I can go for a alternative viewpoint on issues. And yes, I even read Kevin Donnolly!!!! Thanks for the prompt to keep my Facebook feed "meaty"
Tony Robertson | 29 July 2016

An internet phenomenon or a general phenomenon? "Byrdes of on kynde and color flok and flye allwayes together." -William Turner in " the Rescuing of Romish Fox" 1545
John | 29 July 2016


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