Everything that has occurred in the world over the past three weeks has been because of one media outlet, social media. Protests, stories, opinions, debates, images and videos regarding the black lives matter movement have been shared on social media saturating many social media platforms. However, although social media makes us connected, it also divides even more than we could ever imagine. Social media creates a deadly echo chamber.
The phenomenon of confirmation bias is prevalent on social media as users seek information that supports their current convictions. An investigation into the datasets of Facebook found that users belonging to different groups do not commonly interact and primarily connect with like-minded people. Moreover, this study found that social media users who discuss issues online will become increasingly extreme in their beliefs, leading to their opinions becoming polarised. This creates an echo chamber effect where a user’s views are reinforced continuously, with the spreading of information confined to close communities of people with similar beliefs. This echo chamber can have detrimental consequences which have been presented over the past few weeks of unrest and violence around the world.
Social media echo chambers surround users with their own opinions, confirming their prejudices and neglecting any possible alternatives. This increases hostility towards ideological opponents as individuals are not accustomed to considering different options when debating an issue. Furthermore, anger can build when other users do not agree with someone’s perspective, a key catalyst for violence and discontent. That anger can extend past the phone, onto streets and against authoritative figures such as the police. Social media can make us believe that our perspective is the only right perspective and anyone other opinion is irrelevant.
Over the past few weeks, many social media users have utilised phrases that reinforce these echo chambers. Phrases such as “unfollow me if you disagree” or “if you don’t agree with me, you’re wrong”. Other common phrases I have observed include, “I don’t want to debate what is the truth”, and “educate yourself”. These phrases reinforced the danger of social media echo chambers. We become so used to one perspective, our perspective, that any alternative is immediately shut down and considered unworthy of response. The primary consequence is the creation of hostility and possible violence; however, other consequences include a lack of change into the future.
To create change, especially in democratic nations, there needs to be a majority of people in consensus on a particular issue to legislate change. We must bring people together with different views so that we can debate these issues and form ideas that everyone is comfortable with. Telling people to “unfollow me” because their opinion is different is utterly counter-intuitive to the aim of these movements, creating real change.
The black lives matter movement in America is incredibly complicated. Over the past three weeks we have witnessed division between African Americans and the police, division between African Americans on the way to protest and even divisions within the American police on how to control discontent. We’ve witnessed a lot of division. But, when has the movement been most influential? When people come together.
When people come together to push for charges for the other three police officers involved in the murder of George Floyd. When people come together with local authoritative figures. When people come together and stand in solidarity.
If we want to create change, we must come together. Social media creates dangerous echo chambers through algorithms that do not need to be exacerbated by users pushing people with different beliefs away. So, what can you do?
Follow some accounts of users who think differently to you. Have some thoughtful and respectful discussions with different people on issues that you are passionate about. Listen to the personal stories of individuals whose life is a daily struggle.
These are ways that we can defeat an algorithm that seeks to divide us, and come together to fight for equality, justice, and freedom for all, regardless of the colour of someone’s skin.