It may not come as a surprise that I have a lot of left-leaning liberal friends. During last year’s UK election, most of my social timeline was strongly in favour of Labour, and they were confident that there would be a victory for the left and Ed Milliband would be the next Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. The painful shock and surprise that we felt (I did share that view) was genuine, and I saw variations of this message repeated over and over again: “how is this possible when I do not know anyone who votes Tory?”
I have witnessed a very similar feeling in the last few months with my American friends, who overwhelmingly supported Bernie Sanders, my timeline was certainly ‘feeling the Bern”. Each new major defeat for Bernie was met with disbelief, cries of voter suppression and fraud, and the same same unbelieving message: “how is this possible when I do not know anyone who supports Hillary?”
This week my timeline is in a bit of a panic because we are possibly headed towards a Brexit vote. While the number of pro-remain tweets, FB posts and memes I see are defeaning, there is a similar sense of disbelief: “how is this possible when I do not know anyone who wants to vote Leave?”
The answer to these questions is what Eli Pariser famously calls the filter bubble, the Web we browse is increasingly tailored to our needs and likes, it filters out anything irrelevant to us, and we do not have any connection to ideas that challenge our preconceptions. Social media like Facebook encourages an environment ruled by relevance, because more clicks mean more money, and therefore they feed us things that we are likely to click. Furthermore, this phenomenon is enhanced by our own practices, we follow people who share our values, so we are complicit in the creation of the bubbles where everyone shares our opinion. I often read how people take advantage of a controversial event to “weed out the garden” and start blocking, unfollowing and unfriending those with odious views.
So we end up in a web environment in which everyone shares our opinion, and our carefully crafted memes are simply an exercise in preaching to the choir. Anyone who disagreed with those views was already removed and muted, or the other way round.
What is so bad about filter bubbles, you may ask? Most people like to share thoughts in common, and disagreeing takes a lot of energy. The problem is that we end up believing that most “right-thinking” people agree with us, and anyone who does not share our religious/political/social opinions does not deserve to be heard, and we easily dismiss dissenting points of view because they are quickly filtered out. Moreover, those who are at the other end of our spectrum are trapped in the same bubbles, and a process of confirmation and reinforcement starts to take place. So we get the people who are voting Brexit because “I don’t know ANYONE voting in.” We get Trump supporters who believe in hordes of rapist Mexican drug dealers. We get increasingly vocal racist online minorities. We gate groups of SJW-hating gamergaters. We get the alt-right and the MRAs. We get online ISIS radicalisation groups. We get anti-vaxxers. And have you ever wondered about the rise of Flat Earth theories? These can be explained by filter bubbles, online tribes of self-reinforcing communities where participants confirm their own preconceptions.
Things are getting worse. As Pariser warned, social media is predisposed to feed content based on what we click. Research into conspiracy theories has found that misinformation tends to spread quickly online thanks to echo chambers consisting of social media interaction where everyone participating reinforces the misinformation. If you were to click on an anti-global warming article on Facebook, you will be open to a world of chemtrails, anti-vaccination, Illuminati and ancient astronauts.
There is no easy solution other than to be aware of the phenomenon. The first step is to understand that most of our political social interactions will likely never bee seen by anyone who opposes those views. This is more evident than ever in light of the Orlando massacre, liberal and conservative social media are operating in two entirely different universes reinforcing each other’s biases.
Perhaps a good place to start is to visit more battleground spaces. I have to admit that for many years I have been drawn to areas of the Internet that challenge my beliefs. Since I started using the Web, I was always participating in discussion forums about scepticism, politics and religion, and the places that I favoured were those where I would be able to debate with people who held different opinions. Unfortunately, many of these sites no longer exist, or they became tame. At some point those not sharing the views of the majority where driven out, and the forum became another echo chamber.
One thing is clear, the only person who can burst the filter bubble is you.