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Incidental Exposure to News SpellsTrouble for Filter Bubble Theory

Incidental Exposure to News SpellsTrouble for Filter Bubble Theory

The perception that our ideas and judgments have become slaves to social web 'filter bubbles' or 'echo chambers' (or how about cones of homogeneity?) has become folklore. Even Bill Gates raised concerns this year about the deleterious effects of having our worldviews mirrored back to us thanks to algorithmic and personal exclusion of news and opinions that diverge from what we in our guts think to be true.

I've argued otherwise. But my bias has been no match against a Gates or Eli Pariser ('The Filter Bubble: What the Internet Is Hiding from You') even when some studies going back at least three years suggest that news consumption and the psychology of opinion-forming is far more entangled.

But I'm not surrendering to the mythos. Once again, a comprehensive study released this week—2017 Reuters Institute Digital News Report and The University of Oxford—proposes an different assessment based on the impact on social media of 'incidental exposure' to news stories.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, our analysis shows that social media use is clearly associated with incidental exposure to additional sources of news that people otherwise wouldn’t use — and with more politically diverse news diets . . . These ideas, however, largely fail to take account of the potential for incidental exposure to news on social media: situations where people come across news while using media for other, non-news-related purposes.

In fact the opposite of what Gates, Pariser and some of my colleagues keep contending may be happening. The analysis goes on to show that "social media news users and those incidentally exposed to news on social media not only (a) consume news from more sources but also (b) have a more politically diverse online news diet than those who do not use social media at all."

The case isn't closed of course. But surely there is enough counter evidence to the echo chamber theory that we can stop seeing it as received wisdom and think of it instead as an overdone, misleading and dogmatic doctrine.

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