Social media triggers biased public debates: Echo chambers
Social media has become the central platform for forum discussions, be it offline or online, where people butt their heads on any and every burning topic from events like elections, environmental crises to which celebrity recently got engaged and who had their kid. In many cases, when people share their strongly-held beliefs on a particular subject they are most likely sharing them with those who hold similar viewpoints, thereby creating ideological isolation.
Here comes Brooke Foucault Welles, assistant professor of Communication Studies in the College of Arts, Media and Design at Northeastern University and an expert in social networks. She has discussed this trend and its impact on the debate in the public realm. Over the years since its conception, social media has largely become the medium of the interplay between the media and public debate. People are becoming balkanised into “echo chambers” where they are only exposed to arguments and ideas they already agree with.
She has cited much empirical evidences which point to the increasing ideological segregation. Mainly, there are two concrete reasons according to communication studies. First, it is a human tendency that people always from clusters around others who are like-minded and state the same opinions, beliefs, or statements like them. This is called homophily. It predicts that people tend to form relationships with others who share similar values, beliefs, and demographics. So, the idea that social media uniquely produces echo chambers is somewhat overblown—we naturally cluster with like-minded others, and this behavior also accounts for some of the “bubble” effects we see. Second, there are very few people that only get their news and information from social media. People visit the websites of their favorite news sources, watching television news, and reading news magazines. Of course, the media people choose to consume tends to be consistent with their ideological views more often than not. This is called selective exposure in communication studies. It is a tendency or a trend that we often choose to engage with the sources and stories that are most consistent with what we already believe.
There are lots of possible explanations for why we tend to choose friends and media that are consistent with our existing beliefs: it is physically and psychologically easier, it helps us develop our own opinions and sense of self, and it leads to more harmonious interactions overall. And also why we behave differently when we are debating online as opposed to our disposition while debating offline.
In communication studies, one of the most legible theories that describe the difference in the behaviour of people in the online and offline podium is called the Social Identity Model of Deindividuation, or SIDE.
“SIDE theory says that people generally have consistent values and goals online and offline, but in our offline lives our personal (individual) values and goals are prioritised, and in the online world, our community or group’s (social) values and goals are prioritised. This partially explains why people might do or say things online that they would not do or say offline. The anonymity and reduced social cues of the internet encourage people to get caught up in the norms of groups and adjust their own behavior to be consistent with those norms”, says Welles.