After my last post where I highlighted the needless negativity that has gone from creeping to dominating social media platforms, it got me thinking why this was the case. At first it seemed like a pretty straightforward answer, with the combination of dearly held beliefs, anonymity and mob mentality seeming like the perfect unholy trinity that breeds bullying and generally unsavoury behaviour. For every well-meaning person wanting to spread positivity or just simply mind their own business, there’s always going to be trolls and some horrible people. And the larger social media has become, with over 2.27 billion people on Facebook, you’re statistically going to encounter more of those horrible people. But I’m not convinced that that’s the ‘why’ behind all this.
Past methods of directing your grievances towards other people and institutions didn’t include the Internet, and so all you really had was hurling insults to people’s faces or writing strongly-worded letters if you had the time. Of course, strong public opposition to ideas that are minority views or controversial is not just indicative of the 21st Century. People have always been self-righteous when they truly believe that their viewpoint will put them on the right side of history. But what’s different I think is that you could put a lot of the intolerance and prejudice that was circulating in the past down to the considerable less exposure that the ordinary person has to a diversity of ideas. If you weren’t privileged enough to go to a university, travel to different countries or just lacked access to resources that would bring you into contact with societal norms both accepted and controversial, then your echo chamber for the beliefs you hold on to and how you believe the world should be will be pretty claustrophobic. People in the past just weren’t as aware about the cultural and political intricacies of societies from around the globe as they are today, and had little comprehensive access to such views or lived experiences that shape the running of many cosmopolitan areas that are accepting and inclusive of all today.
This was the beautiful dream that globalisation and wide-reaching social media was supposed to bring us, being able to access views, cultures and people on a scale that was never remotely possible before. And it certainly began like that. You could point to the success of several movements and a general raised tolerance of ideas all across the spectrum thanks to being able to create mutual understandings with people and cultures we might not necessarily agree with or have encountered previously . Political correctness is indicative of this positive change, even when it does sometime tread too far. But times have changed, with lots of hostility on display from both sides of contentious issues, such as Trump, Brexit and a host of others. It appears that the respect for alternative thinking and simply the idea that there always two sides to every debate, has been lost. Times have changed, and this is because the technology that connects us has changed too.
Advertising algorithms have allowed Facebook and huge companies across a range of sectors to cash in on our interests in a way that has inadvertently changed the world of marketing and consumerism, as well as each of our unique world views. Advertisers in years gone by would have had to buy fixed advertising space in places like Leicester Square where everyone would see the same advert, with some people not really caring about whatever product happened to be displayed up there. Now, Facebook can tailor adverts for products and services depending on what you search, shop and have liked across social media and search engines. It would be like if everyone saw that thing that they had been window-browsing for a while on the exact same billboard in Leicester Square.
And this technology has now shifted alignment onto people’s views and their echo chambers with views that are different from their own. Facebook, a place where you could see online communities celebrating lots of different interests, hobbies and passions being able to interconnect with each other, is becoming increasingly narrow-minded for the individual. If you’re a passionate gun advocate, pro-choice in the abortion debate or a believer in far-right politics, the more you watch, like and share content that supports your perception of the world, the more the intolerance algorithm will shape your feed, and essentially your online world, with your specific worldview. This leaves little room for the antithesis of any debate to even be seen every time you scroll down your feed, let alone to be rationally dissected. It convinces you that what you think also coincides with what the rest of the world thinks, and so when you’re addressed with any contrasting opinion that is controversial and challenges what you’ve always believed to be the majority viewpoint, it becomes harder to digest.
This is essentially self-propaganda. Imagine if you were a recent convert to vegetarianism and because you like vegetarian food pages, watch vegetarian-related videos and interact with groups and communities that share your love of vegetarianism, your feed starts to be dominated by that belief or viewpoint. Over time, it becomes the case that your entire online world agrees with you, and you become naturally inclined to believe that your worldview is THE worldview. Now replace the above example with political or religious ideologies and it becomes evident that in our liberal reality, staunch orthodoxy that is divisive by nature is being bred online. The fact of the matter is that no idea or opinion is above scrutiny, but with the constant repetition of your viewpoint being etched as a permanent feature in your online existence, the belief that your view is sacred starts to find itself on a pedestal that doesn’t exist in the real world. The echo chamber bellowing that all Leave voters are anti-immigration, all non-vegans lead entirely unethical lives and that the Earth is flat resonate an intolerance to ideas that is making social discourse increasingly more difficult and less favourable, when such discourse is the only way progress and harmony can be achieved.
There have been recent debates as to why the state of politics in the UK over Brexit have been seemingly more toxic than what has been observed in previous decades, with Anna Soubry MP recently being labelled a ‘Nazi’ outside the Houses of Parliament. There have been many contentious issues that have been fought and debated in the Commons, but the atmosphere both inside Westminster and in the public sphere seems more bleak and divided than ever. Maybe if we decided to check out alternative and often uncomfortable viewpoints to our own every now and again, we would not only plug ourselves into reality more, but also diversify our echo chambers with noises other than the same, monotonous sound.