Inside the echo chamber

The unforeseen nature of Donald Trump’s victory yesterday, and before that of the Brexit Leave Campaign, say something quite profound about the way in which US and UK populations now consume their information and form their views.

As the Independent said today, it was the social media “echo chamber” which allowed the pro-Clinton US electorate to misread the strength of the Trump campaign and as a consequence probably caused the Democrat machine to mishandle the response. The same can be said of Brexit.

I am currently reading Kevin Kelly’s excellent book The Inevitable: Understanding the 12 Technological Forces That Will Shape Our Future which I am finding compelling and well argued. There is one thing upon which I disagree with him, though.

He is profoundly optimistic that the global superbrain, which is how he characterises the internet, will broaden our viewpoint and make us much less certain and as a consequence much more questioning – characteristics he believes are very positive. This is how he puts it:

“Ironically, in an age of instant global connection, my certainty about anything has decreased. Rather than receiving truth from an authority, I am reduced to assembling my own certainty from the liquid stream of facts flowing through the web. Truth, with a capital T, becomes truths, plural. I have to sort the truths not just about things I care about, but about anything I touch, including areas about which I can’t possibly have any direct knowledge. That means that in general I have to constantly question what I think I know. We might consider this state perfect for the advancement of science, but it also means that I am more likely to have my mind changed for incorrect reasons.”

Kelly describes his surfing habits, hopping from one site to another, encountering multiple points of view and surprising facts. But I think his optimism on this count is misplaced. Most people don’t use the internet like this. Rather they experience the online world through a very few, powerful portals – Facebook and Twitter being, in the West at least, probably the two most potent. But these sites are heavily filtered, reflecting back on us the views of our friends and those who we have chosen to follow. This is a self-selecting sample and the algorithms reinforce this bias ruthlessly.

So, while we may see the odd beyond-the-pale post which slips through (probably from an unreconstructed relative) the overwhelming impression is that the world reassuringly largely shares our view. This, as both Brexit and Trump’s election clearly demonstrate, may be simply not the case.

Relatively speaking the internet has been around very little time and social media even less. And yet, as is now apparent, it forms a central part of the public ideas space. We have yet to work out how to properly harness it, or deal with its downsides. One suggestion which I read yesterday (but now can’t find unfortunately) is that Facebook add a button so that we can flip our personal filter algorithm. This way, in an instant, we will get to see what people with opposite views to us are actually saying.

In addition, there are excellent fact-checking sites available which could provide fact-based counterpoints which could be provided automatically. These are the kinds of partnerships that Facebook, Twitter et al could usefully be pursuing.

But this is just the start.

We need a real debate about the way in which information is being used and consumed and how to improve the quality of both debate and understanding.

Mainstream media organisations are the fuel which feeds the social media furnace. The media throughout the Brexit and Trump campaigns has fallen victim to false balance in an devastating way. By presenting two sides of a very unequal argument as somehow equivalent journalists may feel they are carrying out their duty of fairness, but they are not. By not pointing out, for example, the weight of scientific evidence and consensus for man-made global warming, or the evidence for the safety of vaccines, and instead giving equal platforms for both sides of the debate, they add fuel to the furnace in a way which promotes the creation of bubbles. Allowing lies to go unchallenged editorially, as happened in both campaigns, creates the impression that there are no truths, only opinions.

We are now living with the fallout.