Brexit, Trump, Chilcot, Black Lives Matter. We are living in emotionally charged and often shocking times. While we might vote in secret, the debate over these issues is a very public one. However, what might surprise you is that what you have seen on a topic might be vastly different from someone else.
In theory, the huge myriad of news outlets, blogs and tweets should mean we are the first citizens in the history of democracy who have perfect information on the issues. However, if you look at how our sources of news have changed in the last 5 years, it starts to give an indication of why we might find ourselves perplexed by world events.
If you’re one of the 60% of the UK population that don’t get any news from a national newspaper you might have noticed that the place you’re engaging in political and social debate has shifted to in your personal social network feed. So what’s the big deal? How is this any different from a news editor deciding which articles to publish? It’s different on 3 fundamental levels
1) We believe we’re seeing the whole picture
Imagine if you only saw one 20-minute news show a week from one TV channel? How worldly and informed would you feel on the topics? Now compare that 30mins the average adults spends on social media every day scrolling through hundreds of snippets of news and edits of stories. Social media feeds are now a key source of news for 51% of people sampled from 26 countries in the annual report on digital news from the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism. For nearly 1 in 3 18-24 year olds social media is their main source of news, with Facebook being the most popular source of news. The sheer quantity of content flowing through our feed makes us feel empowered with knowledge about events from all over the world and all walks of life. Quantity however isn’t always the whole picture.
2) Friends like me
Research has shown we have a tendency to befriend people with similar views and values. This certainly doesn’t change when it comes to your friends on social media and the types of sources you follow. Take your friends on Facebook. In the US, 91% of a white person’s Facebook friends are white. In fact, three-quarters of all white people had entirely white friend groups. Now overlay similarities in ideology, religion and you can imagine how one person’s feed, and thus what they see on a particular issue like Black Lives Matter could be so different from someone else from a different background. Facebook’s own research found that in the US, on average 77% of people’s friends share the same political ideology. Of the hard news content that people’s friends share, 70.5% of these follows these ideological lines. If the majority of content you see reinforces your own viewpoint, it makes it harder to grasp another contrasting perspective and the scale alternative points of view are held.
3) The algorithm knows what you like, and likes what you know
Algorithms that decide what to show you in your social media feeds tend to prioritises content from your friends or content they think you’ll like based on your past behaviour. Twitter used to just show you a timeline of all the activity from all of the people and sources you follow, but in March 2016 they rolled out a change that prioritises tweets from the accounts you interact with most. In June 2016 Facebook announced they would de-prioritise publisher content in favour of posts from friends and family.
If you combine these factors together, we are stuck in a self perpetuating ‘feed loop’. In digital times we must work much harder to jump out of our rivers of thinking to have a better understanding of the world and how to change it for the better.
Here are 3 simple things you can do to help you avoid digital groupthink:
- Make random connections yourself – don’t wait for an algorithm to serve you something different. Go out and seek a random connection. Go into a newsagent and pick 3 things to read you never would usually. Hit I’m feeling lucky on Google. Just maintain an active curiosity rather than a passive receptivity to news and information.
- Get in to the real world – strike up a conversation with someone unconnected to you about a topic you want to learn more about.
- Collect clues and create your own hunches – when it comes to trying to understand an issue, if you only have time to skim through articles and videos, be like a magpie collecting interesting clues. Make time to theme these clues yourself and form your own hunches that would explain the behaviour or situation
 UKOM/comScore data UK 2015 http://www.iabuk.net/about/press/archive/definitive-time-people-spend-online-2hrs-51-mins
 Angela Bahns of Wellesley College in Massachusetts http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/a-friend-like-me/
 Source Exposure to Ideologically Diverse News and Opinion. E. Bakshy, S. Messing, L. Adamic. Science, 2015 http://cn.cnstudiodev.com/uploads/document_attachment/attachment/681/science_facebook_filter_bubble_may2015.pdf