Although we may follow like-minded people on Facebook and Twitter, on the whole, most people are subjected to a wide range of views on social mediaby David Sumpter / April 20, 2018 / Leave a comment
It is easy to believe that people who don’t agree with you are living in a bubble. When you understand the history and background to a problem—be it Brexit, gun control or the (lack of) connection between autism and vaccines—and the other side’s arguments build on ignorance and hyperbole, it can appear that those who don’t agree with you are deluded. Trapped in an echo chamber of their own failed ideas, reconfirmed online by others with that same misplaced sentiment, your opponents’ arguments create self-affirming support for themselves.
This ‘echo chamber’ hypothesis has been around for a long time and has recently been supplemented by the idea of a ‘filter bubble’: the idea that the algorithms used by Facebook, Google and Twitter to provide personalised news end up trapping us inside our narrow worldview.
The advantage of being an academic is that when I hear a theory or idea, I have the time and resources to test it carefully myself. So, when I heard about the ‘filter bubble’ hypothesis, I decided to do exactly that. Well… that’s not entirely true. What I actually did was get a master’s student to help me test it.
Joakim Johansson downloaded data about the people who followed the UK’s leading newspapers on Twitter (this is entirely legal and, indeed, encouraged by the social media site). He then looked at how these people were connected, starting with an analysis of me.
There is a very distinctive structure to my Twitter network. I am part of a cluster of scientists who follow each other. This group is the best type of echo chamber: we reaffirm each other, moan about the scientific funding situation and share the latest gossip. Joakim found that we are also similar in the political information we access, following newspapers—like the Guardian and the Financial Times—that were pro-Remain in the UK’s referendum on membership of the EU. We are part of a pro-Remain academic bubble.
I am not trapped, though. Other links in my network are more spread out, reaching people who don’t know each other, but do know me. It is here that my less academic pastime comes in to play: football. I also use Twitter to talk to fellow football nerds about the game, and the maths and stats used to analyse it. My choice of who to follow about football is more random than in science. Sometimes I’ll share a few tweets back and forth about a match or a player, enjoy the conversation and decide to follow the user I’ve been talking to. As a result, I end up interacting with a more varied group of people, who follow newspapers that were both pro-remain and pro-leave—like the Times and the Daily Mail.