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26th October 2016

Our Internet window to the world is shrinking

David Moseley argues that social media is limiting our perception of the news and the world as a whole

We have all known or still know a friend on Facebook who shares articles and infographics that make our blood boil. Perhaps they are posting far-left feminist safe space policy articles or pushing the grievances of the oppressed white man. You probably unsubscribe to their updates or delete them altogether. Or if you’re like me, you crack your knuckles, do some fact-checking over a cup of tea, and then settle in for a frustrating debate, which ends in pinning the other party’s profile picture to a dartboard.

In short, we tend not to deal well with opinions which contrast our own. Luckily for us, the Internet provides a place to find like-minded individuals whose content we can ‘like’ and in return feel affirmed when people comment favourably on our own shares. It emerged recently that Facebook had updated its newsfeed algorithm, meaning that you’ll see less of people you have little interaction with, and less publishing content. This also means more posts and shares which you enjoy and agree with.

Despite the vastness of the internet, and its spectrum of political and social views, we find ourselves in ever narrower sections of the web. Rather than expanding our view, the internet is increasingly tailored to individual preferences “that make us happy and keep us clicking,” as Wired Magazine notes. “That content is seldom anything that challenges our viewpoint, and there’s a risk that this distorts our view of the wider world.”

Part of this is to do with the nature of the Internet. Advertising revenue allows much of the Internet to remain free, and as we browse, the adverts and content that we see become ever more specific to our interests. I would recommend (with permission) having a look at a friend’s YouTube browser or Amazon recommendations or scrolling through their Facebook; the Internet appears very different through somebody else’s browser.

However, we cannot blame conspiring multinationals and the structure of the Internet entirely for skewing our world view; we do plenty of that ourselves. The people we befriend on Facebook and follow on Twitter, indeed those in our wider social circles, are likely to hold similar views to our own. It’s difficult to get on with someone when you have a wildly divergent take on political issues, and certainly makes going to the pub a minefield.

There is even a psychological basis for the selection of media we consume, namely our confirmation bias. We have a tendency to accept information which supports the conclusions we already have, while denying facts and viewpoints which contradict the views we hold. This means that we may believe we are “drawing on all the facts.” In a sense, we are, it’s just that the available information has already been subconsciously reduced.

The result of all this is the ‘echo chamber’ of the internet. The theory goes that the internet creates ‘enclaves’ of opinion, where the repetition of ideas leads to their being reinforced and pushed to the ends of the spectrum. When “people find themselves in enclaves in which they exclusively hear from others who think as they do… their confidence typically grows, and they become more extreme in their beliefs,” as legal academic Cass Sunstein observes. “Corroboration, in short, reduces tentativeness, and an increase in confidence produces extremism.” When Internet users from opposing enclaves do eventually meet over the latest incendiary hashtag, we witness the keyboard savagery with which we are so familiar.

While confidence in one’s beliefs should not be equated with extremism, anonymity and the ease of finding similarly-minded users means that the internet is particularly well-suited to the “enclave extremism” which Sunstein discusses. Indeed, it is no bad thing that we are able to connect with communities based on our shared interests. We have access to immeasurable amounts of data, and information can be disseminated like never before. The internet platform is of huge benefit.

It seems that the algorithms of the internet are stacked against us, the advertisers are going after our browser history, and our own minds attempt to block out information which challenges us. It is not, however, inconceivable that we might widen the scope of our media. Gone are the days of receiving all news and opinion from a single broadside publication; it’s easy enough to follow political parties, politicians, websites, news outlets. This is not a suggestion to give credibility to extremist views, rather that we might consider facing sources with which we would normally disagree.

The real question is this: do we care about the narrowness of the media we consume? If not, then we have to accept the stubbornly entrenched extremism of the Internet. On the other hand, we have the opportunity to understand the people with whom we disagree and to engage them meaningfully, instead of smashing our keyboards, deleting them from Facebook, and running away.

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