THIS IS A CALL TO ACTION!
We are living in divided times. The political spectrum has been wrenched to both polars, with the centre being left hollowed and vacuous. The rustling sound of the moderate tumble weed that blows through the middle ground is almost defining. The Brexit referendum highlights the division that has come to be the zeitgeist of todays politics. The divides of globalisation’s winners and losers, the listened to and the left-behind, the graduate millennials and the manual workers are just some of the most pertinent and felt symptoms of polarised contemporary Britain. So then what are the causes ? Is it a actually a bad thing ? What can we do about it?
It is difficult to differentiate the causes from the symptoms, in many instances the two are in fact inextricably linked in a vicious cycle. There is one very clear cause however, that has perpetuated and fuelled the polarisation of our society in the UK and across the globe. Social Media and the personalised News Feeds. In allowing individuals to have ‘selective exposure’ — a practice where the user is able to chose to see only the information and media that agrees with their perspectives whilst rejecting and excluding those that dissent — social media has created isolated cocoons and ‘echo chambers’.
This desire to be exposed only to information that conforms with our beliefs is not a new phenomenon and is in fact an entirely natural one. The ‘confirmation bias’ as this desire is known in the psychological world can be seen as far back as the times of the ancient Greeks, as Thucydides commented in 460BC “…for it is a habit of mankind to entrust to careless hope what they long for, and to use sovereign reason to thrust aside what they do not fancy.” . Therefore the idea that people tend only to seek out information that supports their pre-existing ideas and beliefs should not be so concerning to us. However, something has changed. Where as in the past people were exposed to a diversity of ideas , beliefs and opinions — even in heavily biased papers and media outlets, there had always been an element of serendipity in regards to the news individuals would be exposed to — social media has made complete isolation possible.
“for it is a habit of mankind to entrust to careless hope what they long for, and to use sovereign reason to thrust aside what they do not fancy”
If the confirmation bias, this desire to be surrounded by and exposed to likeminded people is natural then why should we be concerned that facebook, twitter and other news feeds are becoming ‘personalised’ and offering ‘tailor made news’ ? There are two main reasons I will explore here and suggest to — rather, I will plead with — you to reject the personalised news feeds and the next time you’re offered to have your news ‘streamlined’ , ‘tailor-made’ or made ‘just for you’ , say NO !
Firstly, isolation from dissenting perspectives leads to the polarisation and binary disagreement that is so prevalent in our modern politics. Lets have a minor thought experiment here;
Its four weeks before your country is holding a referendum asking you to make ‘the most important decision of your lifetime’. You wake up each morning for those four weeks and open up your facebook newsfeed, your twitter threads your tailor made apple News app. All you are seeing are news stories, your friends , celebrities you like saying the same thing, ‘ there is only one clear choice’. So naturally, you start to agree with these people, just as it seems everyone else is. Then on the rare occasion where you do see an opinion that says the opposite, you reason with yourself why this person is saying this and how they’re just disgruntled and ‘ill-informed’, this makes you even more certain now that you’re making the correct decision. So then after over a month of hearing the same voices and points of view that agree with what you’re going to vote, imagine your shock the day of the result when the country doesn’t vote for ‘the one clear choice’.
Ok, you’ve got me. That may or may not have been based upon a recent event in our political history. So then let’s deconstruct what happened to so many Brits as in the ‘thought experiment’ above. When individuals are not faced with dissenting perspectives frequently and often, when they are, we experience something called ‘motivated reasoning’. This is where in instances where someone is exposed to an idea or view contrary to their own they experience ‘cognitive dissonance’ , basically a mental discord and discomfort when our brain is faced with two conflicting ideas at once. The brain tries to reason this dissonance by inventing reasons as to why the dissenting perspective or idea might be wrong, in this case ‘the other idea is ill-informed’. Therefore, an exposure to a plurality of diverse opinions is essential to prevent the motivated reasoning that takes place, preventing a genuine compassion and understanding of the other perspectives in society. Finally, in this thought experiment we experience what is known as the ‘illusion of similarity’. This is where when only reinforcing views are shared together, individuals may not realise the extent to which they are assuming that others must share the same views as themselves. This false consensus (and lack thereof) is damaging to a society such as our where there is no institutional or formal need for consensus, only majority rulings which are at the very heart of our democratic government. Exposure to a diversity of ideas and views is essential to a well functioning, healthy and robust democracy.
Second, selective exposure and isolated echo chambers have resulted in the erosion of truth and established ‘objective’ facts and truth. (I place objective in quotation marks here for the discussion regarding the possibility of ever having objective facts and truths is one that is pertinent and legitimate, however, it is one this article doesn’t have either the word capacity or cognitive space to engage in) Having objective truths in society are essential in enabling us to have constructive, collaborative and civil debates regarding proposed solutions to policies, problems and the direction of our country.
There have always, as far as British politics is concerned, been differing views on how our country should look and the direction its politics should follow. These disagreements have been discussed and debated in society upon the established foundation of facts and truths. In many instances, these differences in perspectives were largely down to ‘information gaps’. This is where groups have different levels of understanding of an issue, and the provision of further information often rectifies this gap enabling socially advantageous policies to be constructed.
However, the proliferation of personalised feeds has meant that this is no longer the case. Often when individuals are provided with more information, just as in the case of motivated reasoning they become more entrenched in their own pre-existing ideas and beliefs. Subsequently, no longer are we dealing with information gaps in society, we now have ‘belief gaps’. This means that we don’t even believe that the same issues exist. We are questioning the foundational basis of each others facts and information. The most obvious example of this can be seen across the Atlantic, where rather than disagreeing on how to deal with the issue of climate change, in the US they are disputing the existence of climate change in the first place. Whilst this is obviously the most available example of a belief gap in action, their impact is pervasive throughout the UK. Just look at some issues like the gender pay gap or immigration and you will see the belief gap in action. The inability to agree on facts, or established truths may just seem like a small anecdote at the moment, with catchy buzzwords like “fake-news” being thrown around, but this is serious. In time, the erosion of established facts and truths will inhibit us from being able to have a constructive debate on any issues; with groups continuing to discuss in isolation, our politics will be so polarised that policy solutions will inevitably insufficient for the future.
The inability to agree on facts, or established truths may just seem like a small anecdote at the moment, with catchy buzzwords like “fake-news” being thrown around, but this is serious.
Ok, so now you’re on board? Here’s what each one of us can do to try and not fall pray to the ‘selective exposure’ that we’re being pushed towards by the social media giants and the mainstream media outlets;
1) Ditch the personalised feeds.
Twitter is perhaps one of the most effective and efficient ways of keeping up to date with news, often before the mainstream media has caught wind of the stories. However, in order to ensure that you’re not in an isolated chamber and wont fall for the ‘illusion of similarity’ in being lead to believe that everyone is thinking the same as you follow your opposites. Take time to ensure that you follow media sources on both sides of the spectrum . You’re a tory?! So what, follow Corbyn, follow Owen Jones. You’d rather die than kiss a tory? Tough luck, follow the Telegraph, maybe even Boris or how about a more sensible politician like Gove or an active tory tweeter like James Cleverly? My point is, whatever your views , make a conscious effort to be exposed to the opposite ones as well as ones you affiliate with.
2) There is nuance in everything.
At the Rethinking society we aim to find the grey areas in every discussion. In blocking us from dissent and protecting us in our isolated echo chambers, social media companies have led us to believe that every issue is simply a binary one. A black and white , yes or no , for and against debate. This is not the case with so many issues. When you are exposed to a diversity of views and ideas in a constructive and civil environment there are many areas where agreement can be achieved and debates can be had. By seeking to find the nuance in all discussions it is possible to stifle the belief gaps that will have a long lasting impact and inhibit the ability of our democracy to provide solutions to the policy problems that we will face in the future.
If you take one thing from this article, may it be this ; to save our democracy from irrevocable ruin, each and everyone of us must Be Critical, Be Constructive and Rethink our assumptions.
This article was written by Finley Morris .