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Admitting the truth about the social media echo chamber
February 7, 2017

Anyone that thinks the phenomenon of the ‘social media’ echo chamber as a new trouble child of the digital revolution needs to open their eyes to what they grew up with. The fact that we now see this as a problem is the first step in admitting it has always been an issue.

This new band wagon that is passing through town, picking up the disenchanted along its way, has gained a lot of air time recently and the cry from those blinkered enough to jump aboard has been loud and clear. Social media is narrowing the view of our youth, or those who use ‘the internet’, and reinforcing their narrow view of the world. How dare this new technology influence our people and guide their decisions. What has become of democracy?

The problem, apparently, is that people will read an article online and ‘like’ it. This then sets the evil black-box algorithms in motion churning out similar articles so you will keep reading, liking and using that particular social media platform. This samsara, liking and churning repetitively, creates a space where the only articles you are exposed to are those that you are most likely to agree with, hence the echo chamber. We are all familiar with this trend and are led to believe it is a new and growing threat to society.

Well, I’m calling bulls*it on this one. Before social media, before the internet, we all had access to the news in an organic, recyclable, finger staining form called the newspaper. This was our daily dose of world affairs keeping us abreast of what was happening locally and, to a limited extent, globally. It was the heyday of journalistic integrity and power. We read the thoughts and opinions; the views and comments, the facts and lack of facts of our favoured thinkers who let us know what the latest government scandal was or who was marrying who. I have memories of my Dad coming home from work every day with the newspaper under his arm and my brother and myself racing to get it first. The newspaper was the window to the world.

And yet, was that in any way different to what is happening today. Back before big brother was keeping its digital eye on us what were our choices. We could read the Times, the Guardian, the Herald or some such publication. Normally we would choose one or the other. Rarely would we have time to read multiple newspapers every day, so we gained our world views from the same publication. And why did we choose the Times over the Independent or the Guardian over the Observer? Because we agreed with what they were saying. We liked how the articles were written and the slant they took on the news.

No newspaper is or was completely devoid of social or political leaning. Every newspaper that we had at our disposal was either left leaning, right leaning, pro-government, pro-democracy,  anti this or pro that as they had to be, not to mention country biased, and we chose the ones we agreed with and read them. This constant ingestion of news from the same source, with the same bias was all we had. It was more than just an echo chamber. It was a Clockwork Orange type brainwashing. We just didn’t have the access to the range of publications we now have so we thought that was the norm.

These days the social media echo chamber is no different. People read an article they like; they ‘like’ it and continue reading articles with that same bias. The only difference now is that we can see what we’re doing. We can see that this behaviour is narrow minded. We have access to every possible publication, with every possible bias in the world but we only read a very narrow section of them. Seeing this from the perspective of the digital world at our fingertips we realise that it is funnelling our views, but at least now we know what is happening. Knowing this, allowing ourselves to realise the error of our ways, the error of our forefathers, gives us the incentive to slowly change it. We now have a name for the habits of previous generations. Change won’t happen overnight but at least now we can get the train to work in the morning and read the news from the BBC, or CNN or AL Jazeera. We have free and open access to them now and slowly but surely the narrow world view we were all brought up in will expand and hopefully enrich our collective societies. This echo chamber that has always been there will remain for those who choose not to expand their horizons but for the rest of us at least now we have the ability see the world from a plethora of different points of view.

Niall Wynne

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