The threat of the echo chamber is something of a recurring theme at Social Media Week London. In a session on social news, Twitter’s Nick Owers asserted that solely following accounts whose political views mirror your own is an “unhealthy” way to consume information. Elsewhere, a BBH keynote warned that the contexts and biases which surround us, be they related to class, race or gender, can stifle and even kill good ideas.
On Day 3 of the festival, Edelman continued the theme with a panel on the implications of social media for civil society. UK CEO Ed Williams began by posing the question: are social ghettos emerging on Facebook and Twitter, with all views being policed by mob rule? Are we entrenching certain perspectives, when we should be fostering dialogue?
According to Emran Mian, Director of the Social Market Foundation, the reality of online discourse is nowhere near that simple. “People don’t split along traditional left/right lines anymore,” he says, citing analysis of data clusters on political opinion which has actually revealed eight distinct political ‘tribes’. While geographical and socioeconomic factors play a role here, these tribes are still more nuanced than you might expect, with right-leaning Brexit voters’ views on social issues like taxes and zero hour contracts actually overlapping with liberals.
“I think our real lives are echo chambers; social media might in fact be less of a reinforcing mechanism,” says Nic Newman, Lead Author on the Reuters Institute’s Digital News Report 2016. He believes that consumers’ media diets have always been mixed, and they will continue to be in the future, and that as long as we’re getting information from a diverse range of sources, there’s still room for a balanced debate.
But what about the trolls for whom political discussion is a convenient banner under which to spread vitriol? Considering their reach and their influence, should organisations like Twitter be regulated in the same way as traditional broadcasters?
“Before you get into regulation, you should think about what an industry can do voluntarily,” says Mian, who sees huge value in “public spaces that are safe, but also force us to consider viewpoints other than our own.”
“Twitter and Facebook are commercial companies; their success relies on people spending time on their platforms. If that credibility suffers, the company suffers,” says Nick Pickles, Head of UK Public Policy at Twitter. For him, the challenge lies in providing a space where people can express themselves, speak truth to power, and start social movements, but at the same time taking a hard line on abuse and harassment. Twitter has publicly admitted it has a long way to go, forming its own Trust & Safety Council comprising thought leaders in this space to advise on policy.
There is no getting around the fact that the way we communicate on social media is influencing the way politicians, in turn, communicate with us. On Twitter, complex issues and positions are boiled down to #BlackLivesMatter, #ImWithHer, #MakeAmericaGreatAgain, #StrongerIn and #TakeBackControl. Language is abbreviated and becomes more potent in the process. What does this mean for broader political discourse? Does the soundbite-friendly politician have an advantage? Or will the people favour a politician who is direct, honest, and raw?
We know that audiences crave authenticity, but as Mian puts it, “authenticity is often associated with the two extremes of the political spectrum.” And as this year’s EU Referendum and US presidential race have confirmed, incendiary remarks from public figures certainly do get attention. But all this does is drive a polar conversation and ignore the huge number of increasingly disengaged people who fall in the grey area between conservative and liberal.
In the lead up to the EU Referendum, David Cameron appeared live on BuzzFeed’s Facebook channel to make his case for Remain; the stream included a real-time emoji scale so viewer sentiment towards the then-Prime Minister could be seen by all. Unlike an appearance on Newsnight or Queston Time, this brought both Cameron and the Referendum to a whole new audience.
This is what we should be embracing; the potential for all voices to be heard. The feedback cycle for politicians no longer has a filter, ensuring that all questions now warrant an answer, and maybe even promoting a greater degree of accountability and trust.
Ultimately, the panel remain unanimously optimistic about the future role of Twitter, Facebook and their ilk in global politics. Mian believes that social media “reduces the burden of discovery,” linking consumers to a plurality of perspectives and broadening their horizons all with a single click.
He also believes that it has the power to make us more tolerant as a society. Twitter has become so engrained in our daily lives that it’s easy to forget it hasn’t always been so, which means that our reactions when confronted with old, embarrassing tweets by politicians are still quite emotive, judgmental, and often disproportionate.
In the future, Mian is hopeful that we’ll be less quick to jump on our outrage bandwagons, that we’ll be more forgiving, and that we’ll accept that people can change, in regards to both election cycles and our own relationships. After all; on Twitter, the personal and the political are one and the same.