Posted on June 9, 2017 by staff

Escape your digital echo chamber


By the time you read this we’ll know who has won the general election. Congratulations/ commiserations* to the Conservatives / Labour / Lib Debs / UKIP / SNP (*delete where appropriate).

If I was a psychic and Facebook was my crystal ball, I’d have drop-kicked it out of a window the day Brexit was announced.

Every status update, news article and meme that appeared on my news feed in the weeks leading up to the referendum overwhelmingly suggested that we would stay in the EU.

I was caught in a digital echo chamber.

The echo chamber effect is when you’re only exposed to information that reinforces beliefs you already hold.

It creates a real danger that people only get the information they want, not a complete picture of the information they need. In a digital world the effect is made even worse by machine learning algorithms that serve people new content based on what they’ve previously read.

It’s not just social media either. In 2012 Eli Pariser, author of ‘The Filter Bubble’, did a TED talk showing that people with different political views are given hugely different results for exactly the same Google search.

This week the British public once again took to the voting booths and in times like these it’s vital that we step outside our own little chamber of echoes to educate ourselves – and that we stop them from closing in on us even further.

The day after Brexit I saw several Facebook friends post that people who voted “leave” should unfriend them immediately. I can understand the temptation but I think it’s also a bad idea.

If nothing else, it’s important to keep ourselves open to conversation with people whose opinions differ from our own – as long as these conversations can stay broadly civil.

Luckily tech can also help with a more proactive solution.

Facebook has stepped up to the plate with its new Perspectives tool, which drops a button under political articles linking users to further content on the topic from other parties.

‘People have told us it is sometimes difficult to find reliable and comprehensive information about the parties’ election manifestos’, a Facebook spokesperson told the Independent.

‘In response, we created a space that allows each party to share explanations of their campaigns directly to people through their Facebook page. People can choose to engage with different party Pages to learn about the issues that matter to them’.

There are initiatives like ‘Hi From The Other Side’ in the US which is like Tinder for people with opposing political views, connecting them so they can get a different perspective.

There’s also a Google Chrome extension called Flipfeed that lets you ‘flip’ your social feed with ones from across the political spectrum.

Obviously, especially with the rise of fake news, it’s still important to seek out sources that are as impartial as possible and do your own research, and to always question everything yourself.

The good thing is that if you proactively start to look at different types of information, the same algorithms that currently give you echo chamber content will learn to diversify what they put in front of you.

The rise of the internet gives us the potential to come into contact with a wider-ranging group of people than ever, yet our world view seems to be getting narrower.

What’s clear is that we won’t learn anything, or educate anyone else, if we continue to hide in our echo chambers.