Today, the internet and media platforms have become the biggest source of getting instant news. But, while we get them, it is necessary to consider whether or not we are listening to only one side of the story. Essentially, hearing only one point of view tailor-made to suit our opinion? To understand this we need to understand some terms like echo chambers, network homophile, and filter bubbles.
To answer this question, let us understand the word online segregation.
Online segregation is the unintentional segregation of people on the internet. People believe it to be a tool for helping democracy. But popular social network services have argued to magnify social, political and class divides that already exist.
To put it in simpler terms, we, as users, firstly show that we prefer to know only certain topics, issues or follow a particular person. Based on this we are bombarded with views similar to our perspective. Over time we come to know only one side of the story. Because there is a lack of facts coming from different sources representing different points.
Whose fault is it then?
Here, we and the social media platforms, both are at fault. Different aspects like echo chambers, network homophile, and filter bubbles are at play here.
Echo chambers are defined as a situation in which beliefs are amplified or reinforced. This happens by communicating and repeating them in a closed chamber. Once we hear them for a long time, we believe them to be true. Then, the chances of correcting the wrong beliefs get reduced.
When one visits an echo chamber, they seek out information that supports their point of view and proves it. This over a period of time and due to lack of contradicting facts and points of view results in an increase in social and political polarization and extremism. In an echo chamber, the credible information sources are left out. Many go as far as discrediting them.
One such incident can is the 2016 US presidential election where some believed echo chambers to play a role in the victory of Donald Trump.
Many times, a person on the verge of joining a social media platform, say for example Twitter, is likely to join it sooner, provided he/she has some real-life friends to connect to on the platform. This, although not bad, results in homophily.
Homophily is the tendency of an individual to associate and bond with similar others. Hence, network homophily under the same context could refer to a pattern where ties are more likely to exist in groups similar to each other. So someone who believes climate change is a hoax is likely to join a group sharing this opinion rather than joining a group which doesn’t. As a result, we get exposed to a similar viewpoint.
Social media platforms have personalized algorithms, established to deliver specific information to an individual’s online feed. This algorithm is called filter bubbles, a term coined by Eli Pariser.
A filter bubble then is a state of intellectual isolation that results from personalized search when a website algorithm selectively guesses what information a user would like to see based on information such as location, past click behaviour, search history etc.
When we log into our Instagram or Facebook, we are shown, only a part of the ongoing “trends”. These posts are selected based on the previous content we have engaged with. The remaining half of the feed is the content which these platforms find engaging enough so as to hold the users’ attention for a longer time.
These platforms have user engagement as their main goal. And hence, filter bubbles, and algorithms are hard at work to deliver only the content that we agree to. Because if we don’t agree with what we see, chances are we’ll keep your phone down sooner than these companies could like.
Add all of these three factors together, i.e. echo chambers, network homophily and filter bubbles along with the social groups and the confirmation bias (i.e. attraction towards information that confirms something we already know); and we arrive at a situation called online segregation.
How is it Affecting Us?
The social media platforms were considered to be a great boon. They helped to connect the leaders with the public they were serving. The formal media houses then receded in the back and social media platforms with their informal interaction took a forefront.
But the recent years have seen this “boon” turn into a curse by influencing public opinion in favour of one side or political party, fake news and incorrect reporting. The incident of Delhi riot last year, a result of incorrect reporting of media platforms still remains fresh in our minds.
When Facebook and Twitter came to the forefront as sources of news, many grabbed on to them, as credible information. Now, the situation has drastically changed.
These sources have as much accurate and unbiased information as they have fake news and biased information. And many times, echo chambers replicate fake news.
But our following say a particular politician, who (not always) may be the source of this incorrect reporting leads to our initiation in echo chambers due to the ‘filter bubble’ algorithms.
Why is it important in India ?
As per a Business-Standard report, more than a third of news channels in India are owned by politicians and their affiliates. And they are used as a propaganda vehicle to influence local elections.
India is a country of diverse religion and caste, where the discrimination is still going on strong. But digitization is reaching everyone irrespective of their caste and background. The media platforms through their leaning towards one side, with incorrect or partial reporting, are sowing distrust, hatred, disrespect and division among us. As a result, there is hostility towards anyone who thinks feels or talks differently than us.
Hence, it is important for everyone to understand that incorrect predictions or assumptions of political events can disrupt any democratic conversation between diverse people.
(Check out the media bias chart of 2020 here.)
So what can we do?
Until we as a population seek out different opinions and listen to the debate happening on both the side, democracy is at risk. And like many journalists agree ‘diversity of opinion is necessary for democracy to thrive.’
What can we do?
- First and foremost ask yourself “Am I agreeing to everything I see?” If yes, you might as well accept that you are in an echo chamber.
- Start listening to unbiased news channels and sources.
- Expose yourself to different viewpoints. Understand the bias that exists and differentiates us.
- Search for an authentic news outlet and support them.
- Try and introduce an authentic, credible source in your echo chamber and to your peers.
- Focus on a recent post rather than personalizing your feed.
- Don’t unfollow people because they do not support your view. Follow again those whom you unfollowed because of their political preferences or difference of opinions.
- “Like” everything. So that your feed has all of everything and algorithms have a hard time placing you in one category
- Search for important and sensitive topics through incognito mode.
- Speak with other people without the barrier of screens. Try to understand their basis of opinion.
The global digital world instead of bringing the world closer is dividing us into troops and groups. The more personalized our experience gets the more away we go from a diverse world. So, it is up to us to be open to a wide variety of opinion. And avoid unjust criticism.
So the next time you read an opinion online. Be sure you get all the sides of the story. Maybe even for this one!