With the recent inauguration of Donald Trump and the results of the Brexit referendum, alongside a growth in support for parties like UKIP, it seems that populations of voters are becoming more extreme in their political views.
Recent theories have attributed this greater polarisation of groups to the ‘echo chamber’ effect in political opinions shared on social media. This suggests that the information we receive on our news feeds does not provide us with a diverse array of opinions or viewpoints. Instead, our feeds are tailored so as to provide us with information concurrent with our own political views. The echo chamber refers to the idea that information we put out on social media is repeated and reflected back by those within our communities, whilst contrasting views are ignored and limited.
As social media sites, such as Facebook, are the primary sources of political news information for Millennials (Mitchell et al., 2015), it has been suggested that the limited spectrum of news that we engage with is reducing the discussion that underpins democracy and political debate.
This may also predict problems in the future: if people’s political views are being mirrored on social media, they may perceive that view as the norm across the whole country. This has been used to explain why so many voters were sure that the results of the Brexit referendum or the American election would go in one direction, with some even choosing not to vote on account of this certainty, just to receive an unwelcome shock when their assumptions were mistaken. Could all this be a result of limited information, lulling social media users into a false sense of security in the belief that their view is shared by voters on a national or global level?
Whilst many have pointed the finger at the algorithms and cookies that social media sites use to adapt the information available to the user, in order to remain relevant or appealing, it is worth exploring whether this chamber is partly constructed as a result of our own choices. Social Identity Theory (Tajfel & Turner, 1979) highlights an innate desire to belong to social groups, with pride and self-esteem gained from doing so. However, this can lead people to start discriminating between group members and outsiders. The desire to enhance one’s own self-esteem leads to an ingroup bias: tending to perceive ingroup members more favourably and derogating or belittling outgroup members. This could explain a desire in people to form groups with those on social media who share similar political views, thus communicating mostly with them, valuing their opinions and negating alternative views. This, therefore, begs the question: is the information presented to us limited by technology, or is social media simply a new platform for us to selectively expose ourselves to information that reinforces our need for group belonging?
This article was written by Emily Weigold and edited by Emma Keoy. Both of them are members of the Bugle team.
Mitchell et al. (2015). Facebook top source for Political News amongst Millennials. Retrieved from: http://www.journalism.org/2015/06/01/facebook-top-source-for-political-news-among-millennials/
Tajfel, H., & Turner, J. C. (1979). An integrative theory of intergroup conflict. The social psychology of intergroup relations, 33(47), 74.