There’s a widespread belief that our social media feeds are increasingly becoming echo chambers, reinforcing our pre-existing beliefs and biases. What’s more, commentators and users alike are keen to portray social media platforms themselves as responsible for this phenomenon. They argue that sites such as Facebook and Twitter encourage us to associate only with those who share our political and social views, creating a dangerously divided world. In reality though, we – the users of those platforms – are at fault.
There is nothing in the format or function of social media platforms that makes the echo chamber effect inevitable. It’s up to us to expose ourselves to a wider range of views and, in doing so, moderate the divisiveness of our political discourse.
It may be tempting, even natural, to fill our feeds with headlines and comments from news organisations and pundits with whom we already agree. The average Guardian reader, for example, is unlikely to follow the Daily Mail on Twitter. However, that this is the case is not the fault of platforms themselves but how we choose to use them. In fact, Twitter in particular can even encourage us to broaden our horizons.
Try following any news account or political magazine feed; your suggestions for else to follow will soon be filled with accounts similar in style but not necessarily in opinion. Follow the New Statesman and the Spectator will be recommended, the Independent and Twitter will suggest the Telegraph. The same is true of politicians, commentators, even comedians.
When we choose to ignore these suggestions and instead opt to simply have our existing views reinforced, we are creating our own echo chambers. Though platforms themselves are blamed for allowing or facilitating this, the decision to ignore alternative points of view is ultimately taken by users.
Of course, advertising on social media plays a part in the creation of echo chambers. The Cambridge Analytica scandal showed that companies which access our data through Facebook can target ads and articles towards impressionable individuals. But even here, users are far from blameless. Not only are ad blockers widely available on most social media platforms, we can also limit what data advertisers can access through our security settings and by being more discerning about the apps we use.
Another common criticism of social media platforms is that they prohibit reasonable, mature debate; contributing to the divisiveness of political discourse. Indeed, this is one excuse many users give for creating their own echo chambers. If social media sites can’t facilitate sensible discussion then there’s no point in engaging with alternative views, so they argue. Yet again though, the fault here lies with users and not platforms.
Sure, Twitter’s character limit and Facebook’s reaction-focussed algorithm may encourage snappy, simplistic comments, but that needn’t prevent those who wish to from engaging in reasoned debate. Regular viewers of Question Time may even recognise the benefits of Twitter’s 280-character limit, which prevents the long-winded waffling that often mars political discussion. Even those unconvinced about social media’s potential to facilitate reasonable debate should not use this as an excuse to shelter themselves from opposing views.
Despite the prominence of the ‘echo chamber’ concept, a recent study by Seth Flaxman of Oxford University found that the majority of social media users do read news sites which challenge their pre-existing beliefs. The study contends that the nature of social media means users are automatically exposed to a range of views whether from news sources or other users. However, Flaxman also finds a noticeable gap between the share of users reaching across political divides for their news and those taking in opinion pieces which counter their views. To break out of our self-constructed echo chambers, social media users need to engage as much with the latter as the former.
Britain in arguably as divided as ever – Leavers v Remainers, socialists v conservatives, Katy Perry v Taylor Swift – but the social media echo chambers which contribute to these divisions are the fault of users, not platforms. If we’re confident in out views, we should be prepared, even eager, to have them challenged. Used correctly, social media can be a tool for productive debate, but for this to be the case, users – not platforms – need to change.