What happened to social media being a conversation platform instead of an echo chamber?

Twitter

We are what we read online and this can be dangerous. Curated and personalised news feeds are driving us into holes we might not be able to dig ourselves out of – meaning, we’re becoming more and more self-absorbed with those that share our own views. It’s like an episode of Black Mirror, but instead it’s reality.

Maybe it started with Facebook's 2013 addition, the 'unfollow'. It gave users the ability to quietly unsubscribe from a friend’s feed without their friend knowing – hiding your friend's right wing views and pictures of their cats from your feed, for example – but to anyone else you're still friends.

On Twitter, you can now mute tweets on your feeds based on individual words. If I muted the word "Conservative", nothing would ever appear in my feed with the word conservative in. Some people would rejoice at the prospect.

I am guilty. I have curated my social feeds to the max. I have unfollowed those on Facebook whom I should – for the sake of family politics – be friends with. Turns out I'm not so interested in how amazing their weekend at Soho Farmhouse was or what score they've got to on FarmVille or the pictures of what they had for dinner or their views on a certain Donald Trump.

And yet I am wrong to unfollow these people.

What happened to the time, not so long ago, where social media was a conversation platform? After all, it is 'social'. Instead, we have trolling, a sort of dystopian, nightmare internet phenomenon, which infests social media channels and destroys our experience with nonsensical and mostly vile arguments. But in blocking out views that don't tally with ours, what we're doing is ignoring those who need be challenged no matter what your political position. Social media has to be a place for not only opinion but debate. We need more discussion about differing ideologies, not less.

One thing we know for certain about the recent US election and indeed the EU referendum is that social media is a point of influence. It's true that left wing politics is not penetrating the barrier of right wing ideology through digital channels – all that's happening is preaching to the converted.

And now because of our overly curated, single-minded social media feeds distorting our view on the world and politics at large, we've lost all knowledge of the balanced argument. Broadly speaking, 'fact' has been bypassed.

What we have done is constructed narrow networks of people on platforms who write, talk and think like ourselves. This kind of curation makes us feel good and, more importantly, correct. People are segregating themselves through social media and that's dangerous. We have to learn to be tolerant of other ideas to be better citizens and exposure to only like-minded voices may contribute towards polarisation towards ideological extremes. It's a danger to democracy.

I think it's imperative that as technologists and platform owners we look at this and find a way to balance the playing field with factual, neutral information where users can challenge their own views in order to be best equipped to make a considered decision.

Can we escape this cycle? Experts are genuinely worried we won't be able to. Maybe, despite the digitisation of the world and our manipulated social feeds, we have learnt that the harder offline conversations matter.

In America, where many are still reeling from the election result, there are roughly two thirds of adults who use social media to express their political views. According to recent research, nearly one-third of social media users (31%) say they have changed their settings in order to see fewer posts from someone in their feed because of something related to politics, while 27% have blocked or unfriended someone for that reason. Taken together, this amounts to 39% of social media users – and 60% of them indicate that they took this step because someone was posting political content that they found offensive.

Did social media contribute to putting Trump into the White House or voting us out of the EU? Yes, but it isn't social media's fault; it's ours for not challenging the rhetoric and abandoning the debate.

Paul Hewitt is head of marketing at Nice Agency (a part of Karmarama), a Wirehive Award Judge and DMA Mobile Council Member

Research: Pew Research Center, 2016

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