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Filter Bubbles | Echo Chambers — Not So Much

As someone who has a Facebook and Twitter presence that could be considered dilettantish (in a good way, meaning interest in something for the sheer delight of it), I choose to follow people not because they are like me but because they may contribute something to my appreciation of, well, anything. I think I am expanded after a fashion by their knowledge, experiences or perspective. 

But according to Eli Pariser and others I am fooling myself: I am in reality working within a sort of cone of homogeneity.

Pariser coined the term the filter bubble—sometimes now called the 'echo chamber' effect—to describe what is assumed to be the idea-mashing that comes from people on the social web talking to others like them, with the same views on politics, society, religion, food, fashion, entertainment etc.

This echo chamber concept is used to dismiss the relevance of trending ideas on social networks especially when it comes to politics or social comment.

People who believe in the echo chamber effect agree we use the social web to choose and cluster information, share opinions and debate ideas—kind of. But they question whether the conversation is just a backwash of similar assumptions and attitudes that in the end reinforce rather than challenge opinion patterns.

Along comes Pablo Barbera (@p_barbera), a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Politics at New York University and a graduate research associate in the Social Media and Political Participation (SMaPP) laboratory to say . . . No!

His academic study, based on an analysis of millions of individuals in Germany Spain and the United States, comes two big broad conclusions: "Most social media users are embedded in ideologically diverse networks and that exposure to political diversity has a positive effect on political moderation".

In this paper I challenge this conventional wisdom. I contend that social media usage – one of the most frequent online activities – reduces political polarization, and I provide empirical evidence to supports this claim. My argument is two-fold. First, social media platforms like Facebook or Twitter increase incidental exposure to political messages shared by peers. Second, these sites facilitate exposure to messages from those with whom individuals have weak social ties (Granovetter, 1973), which are more likely to provide novel information. Consequently, despite the homophilic nature of personal networks (McPherson, Smith-Lovin and Cook, 2001), social media leads to exposure to a wider range of political opinions than one would normally encounter offline. This induces political moderation at the individual level and, counter intuitively, helps to decrease mass political polarization.

In other words, the value placed on the echo chamber effect is questionable, at least when it comes to  the political judgements we make. Our social networks help reduce political and, one suspects, other forms of extremism—including maybe a range of dislikes (selfies, celebrity fetishes?).

We might just be better—not filtered or echoed—people because we build social networks.

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