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Filter Bubbles? Echo Chambers? We're not Sheep!

Filter Bubbles? Echo Chambers? We're not Sheep!

Ever since Eli Pariser wrote about filter bubbles in 2012, pundits see bubbles and chambers everywhere especially after social shocks like Donald Trump's election. Every instance of supposed cohesiveness of opinion is attributed to bubbles. And they accuse echo chambers of every manner of problem. 

In Wired shortly after the US election, Mostafa M. El-Bermawy claimed they are destroying democracy: "Rarely will our Facebook comfort zones expose us to opposing views, and as a result we eventually become victims to our own biases."

Three journalists reporting in The Guardian post-election asked a few people of different political orientations to swap Facebook news feeds to provide evidence that:

Criticism of the filter bubble, which gained steam after the UK’s surprising Brexit vote, has reached a new level of urgency in the wake of Donald Trump’s upset victory, despite Mark Zuckerberg’s denial it had any influence.

Dave Fleet at Edelman, usually quite perceptive, also fell into the same reductive trap claiming that

Given that most people tend to connect with people and organizations that share their views and values, it leads to people largely being surrounded with people who share their perspectives on things.

But what's the reality? Something much less derivative than Pariser's original conception, or the copy cat ideas of post-truth journalists or pundits.

Even Pariser himself suggests we need to be more circumspect about attributing every political or social earthquake to our supposed social-media-induced blindness to differing views. 

One bubble we all live in is the idea that social media is a primary source of news for most people. In fact it’s still the case in 2016 that most Americans get their news from local TV news, according to Pew. So I actually think it’s very hard to attribute the results of this election to social media generally or the filter bubble in particular. 

In fact, it's about time some academic researcher or journalist less easily led by received opinion actually investigated the truth of these reductive claims about filter bubbles and echo chambers.

Here are three contrary ideas to consider:

First, Pew Research recently found that, in fact, our Facebook and Twitter feeds contain a variety of opinions. The supposed homogenity of views on social media may be over-stated.

Second, our ideas are formed by a network of friends, family, online news, drama and movies, some of which are presented and discussed on social networks but others through offline conversation and social interaction. Because we choose not to hear Trump apologists in our news feeds, for example, does not mean we aren’t aware of Trumpist core ideas. I for one have read, heard, seen and discussed enough analysis of what Trump people are angry about to know I still don't sympathize with a racist and misogynistic reaction to real economic problems.

Third, even within a framework of broad agreement in our networks, there are nearly always nuances of interpretation. I may prefer to interact with people who hate what Trump stands for as I do, but I can disagree with their (a) analysis of which aspect of his program is most deleterious (b) how to combat his world of hate (c) how close we are to a similar racist and homophobic populism in Canada (d) whether the Conservative Party in Canada harbors Trump sycophants (it does). All of these circumscribe legitimate differences of opinion that lead me and others to better-formed, considered and in the end less one-sided views.

So spare me the reductive analysis that we are all trapped meekly in echo chambers in which our ability to think and analyze is always diminished. 

(2016)

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