Social media is a divisive echo chamber


By Stuart Maggs

Don’t believe everything you read on Twitter

Over the last few months I’ve been paying far too much attention to Twitter and Facebook, and it’s twisting my views of the world.  I read hundreds of posts a day, and every once in a while one or two of them spout some tripe about how Tories are scum, or people who voted Leave are racist morons who were taken in by the transparent lies bandied about by UKIP.

It started to make me angry.  How dare the Left say these things?  How dare the Remainers disrespect me in this way.  I’m not an uncaring authoritarian who wants to prosper on the misery of others.  I’m not an unthinking xenophobe taken in by the lies on the Boris Bus.

It took me a while to realise that it isn’t the Left, or the Remainers, screaming this abuse.  It’s a small handful of vitriolic demagogues, and Twitter and Facebook has given them a voice they never had before.  Our media then makes it worse, as in their desperation to fill the 24 hour news cycle they provide bites of public opinion, generally the more extreme or noticeable ones because, well, they’re more interesting.

It’s a symptom of our modern system that we can tailor our experience of the online media to reflect our own opinions, and without knowing it we build our own echo chamber.

We read and trust the mainstream media whose opinions we agree with. Our friends are our friends because they tend to share similar views with us. And we follow people on Twitter because we like what they say, and tend to unfollow those who say things we disagree with.

Technology persuades us to wrap ourselves in a comfortable blanket of affirmation and reassurance, and lets us banish contrary views with the click of a button.  Social media drives us to build a world in our own image, and of course almost everyone there agrees. We’ve carefully chosen those voices over the last several years for that very reason.

The tool that was meant to bring people together is driving our society apart.  As our own opinions are echoed back to us, we become less tolerant of those who disagree.  I mean, practically everyone you know voted Leave (or Remain), and so there must have been something wrong with the few voices your heard saying something different.  Everyone says Corbyn is a no-hoper (or the saviour of the UK) and the handful of people who disagree must be missing the point.

The rise of social media has seen a shift in your experience of politics.  You used to be able to see the centre ground from the few contrasting reports you could read, and know where you stood in relation to it.  But that view of the centre ground has moved, because your experience of it is now centred on you.  Opinions that others might view as perfectly reasonable now seem more extreme if they disagree with yours, and more radical ideas might seem fair they are not that distant from your own thoughts.

This subtle shift in perception of public opinion drives anger, distrust and disbelief.  Of course Tories are scum, if 90% of the people you listen to disagree with their policies.  Of course Labour are incompetent, if almost all your friends laugh at their misfortune.

Now more than ever we have to be critical of our own opinions and sceptical of those who agree with us.  You don’t test an idea by giving it to people who agree – you listen to those who disagree and use their arguments to improve it.

At the same time we need to respect those who differ from us.  Invariably they will be people just like us, who have listened to reports, considered their options, and who honestly believe theirs is a sensible and positive answer to the troubles that face us all.  But more than that, we need to challenge those views, respectfully and with clarity.  It is easy to dismiss an angry shout, or a bleating whine, as an ill-considered nonsense.  It is much harder to dismiss people who engage with you respectfully and constructively, acknowledging their own shortcomings while carefully trying to explain their views.

It sounds trite to say this, now that I’ve reached the end of this piece.  But I suppose if it was as obvious as it seems, everyone would already be doing it.

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The views expressed in this article are that of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Conservatives for Liberty