One of the oddest things said to me in the post Brexit meltdown of the Remainers was that everything was Facebook’s fault. Who could have known, asked my friend (on Facebook) that so many people were planning on voting leave when none of his Facebook friends were, and when the news fed to him by Facebook algorithims suggested that everyone with any sense was planning to vote Remain. This bemused me. Didn’t he read a newspaper? Listen to the Today programme? Watch the news of an evening? Apparently not.
Instead, all his information came one way or another from social media. And that turned out to be a problem. It isn’t one that has just been identified. Back in 2011, Eli Pariser, co-founder of Upworthy, described my friend’s situation as being in a “filter bubble”.
Algorithms such as Facebook are designed to give us more of what it thinks we want – such that, as Katherine Viner, editor of The Guardian puts it, “the version of the world we encounter every day in our own personal stream has been invisibly curated to reinforce our pre-existing beliefs.” That means that those who rely on it “are less likely to be exposed to information that challenges us or our world view and less likely to encounter facts that disprove false information that others have shared”.
You might ask (as John Stepek does) if this really marks much of a difference from the past: after all, people have always liked to live in their own filter bubbles (reading the Telegraph or the Guardian but not both, and spending the majority of their time with people who agree with them already). I think it probably does. Facebook has 1.6 billion users – a large number of whom really do seem to get all their information from it. With Google, it really does dominate the online world.
Before social media, people might have read just one paper (or perhaps none) but at least most papers, while biased in one direction or another, do host a range of voices and bits and bobs of information that you wouldn’t come across (or be asked to interpret) otherwise.
There wasn’t one that only ran Remain articles or only ran Leave articles (even the FT gave me the space to explain why I planned to vote Leave). The same goes for the radio and TV news.
The good news is that it is very easy for most people to move out of their filter bubble – and perhaps our referendum might encourage some to do it. Sarah Sands wrote in the Evening Standard yesterday that she had recently met a young artist who “had fearfully altered his social media profile to engage with those outside London, particularly Brexiters”. I reckon he would do just as well to read a newspaper. Or two.