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MediaJune 30, 2016

Blindsided by the Brexit result? Blame the ‘filter bubble’ of social media

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The rancorous fallout from Brexit reinforces one of the key failings of what passes for debate in the social media era: that neither side ever hears the other’s argument. Richard MacManus on the ‘filter bubble’, and some ways Facebook and Twitter can address it.

The big news this week was the decision by 52% of British voters to leave the European Union, aka Brexit. I was shocked and dismayed by the result; and I bet the vast majority of you reading this felt the same way. Certainly my Facebook and Twitter news feeds were filled with recriminations towards the 52% who voted to leave. But this made me think: who are those 52% and why aren’t I seeing their points of view? The simple reason: they’re not in my social networks. And if they are, they’ve probably been blocked so I don’t see their updates! The reason why many of us didn’t see Brexit coming is that we’ve turned a blind eye towards those 52%. We’d filtered out the warning signs.

The Filter Bubble, a term coined by Eli Pariser in his 2011 book, has always been an issue with our social media technologies. We only see what we choose to see. We befriend and follow people who think like we do. We ignore the 52% who don’t share our worldview… well, except when we want to laugh at them or insult them. Added to this is a problem I’ve labeled “Selfish Media.” Much of what we do see on social media isn’t social at all, but selfish. Think about what the term “social” means: community, supporting other people, listening. Do we get those things on Facebook or Twitter? Sometimes, but let’s be frank here. What we mostly get is egotistical posts, blinkered opinions, and lots of talking over each other.

Two Suggestions For Facebook & Twitter

So what can we do to overcome the Filter Bubble and Selfish Media? Firstly we need to find a way to listen to outside views again. I think the major social media companies – and in particular Facebook and Twitter – should step up here. Personalisation has been a catchphrase for social media up till this point, but it’s become too narrow. There needs to be more serendipity and better access to alternative viewpoints. Here are a couple of simple suggestions for both Facebook and Twitter:

  1. Facebook could add a new module to its news feed that highlights alternative viewpoints. So for example, if you see a lot articles about Brexit by The Guardian in your newsfeed, perhaps Facebook can highlight alternative commentary on the same topic by The Times. You may not choose to click on it, but at least Facebook will be giving you the option to read an alternative point of view. (hat-tip Gilad Lotan for suggesting an idea along these lines)
  2. Twitter could make it easy for its users to both create and subscribe to topical lists. Ok, lists on Twitter has been my hobby horse for some time. But in this case, it’s a no-brainer! An easy way to find out alternative viewpoints is to subscribe to a list of people you wouldn’t otherwise follow. Say I want to track what leading Republicans think of the upcoming US election. Well, turns out a nonprofit website called Tweet Congress has created a list of Republican politicians. I don’t have to follow any of those people individually, but it’d be useful to subscribe to and check the list every now and then.

It’s not all on the big social media companies though. Where there’s an opportunity to improve a user experience – as there clearly is here – there is an opportunity for a new startup. There are at least a couple of startups trying to burst the filter bubble. One was co-founded by Eli Pariser himself: Upworthy. It’s a news website that aims to “change what the world pays attention to.” Ok, like every other news site it posts about Donald Trump. But at least it gives us an alternative view of Trump that we don’t often see (one written from the point of view of a Muslim American, in this case). Another website trying to break the filter bubble is Counterpointing, which uses the ‘point/counterpoint’ structure to offer opposing views on the same story. Its latest post (at time of writing) is one entitled Is Brexit Good for Trump?. I think Counterpointing can do a much better job of summarising the pros and cons of each side, but I like the intent.

Conversing With The Enemy

The next challenge after listening to alternative views is, of course, to converse with the 52%. That’s much more difficult, since online discourse isn’t known for its civility – even among your own 48%. The gaps in understanding among different groups of people are too large and it’s a rare individual who can truly connect with everyone (the Dalai Lama might be the only person on Twitter who can). That said, there is one thing that will help improve the level of discourse amongst us all: stop being Outraged by things. Outrage on social media just leads to even more division. I’m outraged by the constant flow of outrage I see on social media!

Also consider the language you use on social media to describe people outside your circle. One of the best posts about Brexit I read was by Chris Arnade, who wrote this on Medium: “…we often outright mock anyone who can’t keep up, or doesn’t fit in with the new order. We call them dumb. Idiots. Religious freaks. Rednecks. Thugs. Hoodlums. Ghetto trash. White trash. The language we use to talk about those who have been left behind is rife with nasty attempts to turn them into lesser humans.” One of the recurring themes in my Augment newsletter is humanism in technology, so Arnade’s point resonated with me.

In conclusion, I really think Facebook and Twitter must help bring alternative viewpoints to the public discourse about issues like Brexit. Then it’s up to us, the users, to actually pay attention to alternative points of view. The ultimate goal is to encourage civil discourse between different groups of people, which in this age of inequality is a hard thing to achieve. But one step at a time: how about we all try to at least consider other points of view, especially before spouting off our own opinions on Facebook or Twitter.

This post originally appeared as part of Augment, Richard MacManus’s weekly newsletter about internet trends.

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