Echo chambers and fake news
Late last year, Oxford Dictionaries announced that their 2016 word of the year was ‘Post-truth’.
That seemed particularly apt given the outcomes of two of the most seismic political events of the year were widely thought to have been driven by post-truth politics with fake news, social media bubbles and echo chambers all playing an influential role.
The twin themes of fake news and echo chambers enjoy a symbiotic relationship that helps to explain why both have grown and prospered so much over recent times.
Echo chambers exist on social media because we largely surround ourselves with ‘people like us’. People who share similar views, interests and values. Some express their views more stridently than others and are often keen to spread news that helps to underscore their point of view, regardless of how accurate that news may turn out to be.
Fake news flourishes in the environment of such echo chambers because it typically reflects the majority view held by that particular ‘chamber’ and is therefore less likely to be challenged and is more likely to be reinforced via repeated agreement and sharing.
Brave is the person who continually confronts the prevailing narrative, even if it has been proven to be false. The majority are content to go with the flow and conform to their own particular chamber’s code of conduct.
I decided to look more deeply into this topic and found an enlightening article explaining how Facebook decides what we should be seeing within our social feeds.
As you might expect, it is a highly scientific, data-driven approach, supporting Facebook’s News Feed mission which it defines as being “to connect people with the stories that matter most to them.”
So, basically, Facebook work out who you like and what you like and then give you lots more of it. Simple, efficient machine learning – what could be better?
But wait a minute. Doesn’t this soon become a self-fulfilling prophecy? The more ‘stuff we like’ that we get shown, the less opportunity there is for us to see anything else.
What about all those things we don’t already know about and might actually like? How do they get a look in?
Taken to its logical conclusion, if Facebook has its way, we may never get to stumble across them because they don’t conform to the algorithm of what we have demonstrated we like in the past.
And what better environment for fake news and unchallenged viewpoints to prosper?
But this all ignores a simple human truth - human beings are naturally curious. We are motivated to seek information and our brain ‘rewards’ us for discovering new things.
How can we ensure this part of our brain is continually fed and nourished with fresh information if increasingly that element of discovery is being outsourced to Facebook and its ilk?
Maybe it is from my having recently worked in the industry, but I see an important role for newspapers to play here.
Amid the doom and gloom of falling circulations & declining ad revenues and alongside the familiar selling messages (reader engagement, authority, detailed information and so on), I always felt newspapers undersold the benefit of serendipity.
Every day, when a reader first opens a newspaper, they are blissfully unaware of what they might find between the pages. What new information they might learn about.
How exciting for the reader to embark on a daily mini-voyage of discovery. And how exciting too for advertisers to be able to talk to them while they are in such an open and receptive mindspace.
On many occasions when presenting to agencies and clients in my previous role, I would begin by pulling out three left-field stories from that day’s newspaper and sharing them with the room.
Invariably, no-one would have already read those stories and their reactions would almost universally be positive along the lines of ...“I never knew that”.
Unless I’m a very poor reader of body language, I also got the sense that some of those stories would be re-shared later that day.
The more we rely on Facebook’s algorithm to provide us with what it thinks we want to know, the more reductive our lives are in danger of becoming, thereby reinforcing our existing knowledge, opinions and prejudices.
On the other hand, newspaper readers open themselves up to discovering something new every time they open the pages of that day’s issue and I believe this can be a major positive in a post-truth world.
My rather ambitious wish for 2017 is for people to regain their ability to embrace more than one narrative, to question what they used to accept blindly and to re-consider what they used to reject out of hand.
To appreciate the joys of discovery, curiosity and serendipity.
Would anyone else echo that?