What do we do when we sign up for a social network account? Aside from setting up a profile picture and writing a brief bio, we usually go in search of people to follow. If we are politically minded, perhaps we go in search of political figures that we find interesting, or that we agree with. A Labour supporter is probably going to follow Labour politicians on Twitter, and most likely some Left-leaning journalists or activists. There is nothing intrinsically unusual or wrong about this. Football fans follow their own club and players on Twitter, and music fans will follow bands they like, rather than bands they don’t. It’s how the internet works in 2016.
The relative anonymity of the internet allows political views and opinions to be expressed in a more open and honest manner than may otherwise be possible in everyday life. The growth of online media has also allowed a space for less mainstream political views to gain a large and dedicated following. It’s undeniable that online campaigning helped garner support for the likes of Sanders, Corbyn and Trump, despite them all having extremely different political views.
There are certainly some consequences to consider, though. In recent years, it seems as though politics in the West has become increasingly polarised. Movements both on the far right and the far left look to drag mainstream political parties away from the relative safety of the centre ground. There are numerous suggestions as to why this has happened, but one factor that surely can’t be overlooked is the internet, social media, and the impact of confirmation bias.
With the polarisation of politics in mind, I think it is time to consider the effect that confirmation bias has on our political discourse. Wikipedia conveniently defines confirmation bias as “the tendency to interpret new evidence as confirmation of one’s existing beliefs or theories.” In 2016, customisable newsfeeds filter out the news we don’t want to see, and this can easily lead to what some may describe as an echo chamber. We read headlines on Facebook, Twitter and Reddit, that are chosen thanks to complex algorithms adapting to our reading habits. It’s even possible to look through your Facebook privacy settings and see which political label you’ve been given by the world’s largest social network.
The outrage among many younger, liberal Americans, at the results of the recent US Presidential Election surely suggests something about the state of modern media consumption. A result that went against the prevailing feeling among the pro-Clinton media seemed unthinkable because no one was reading news that suggested Trump stood a chance come election day. The social media algorithms pointed them in the direction of headlines that they would most likely agree with. The same is true all along the political spectrum. Across the web, users of all backgrounds and beliefs create their own bubbles as they ‘follow’ or ‘like’ political commentators and figures who they agree with. The internet has made confirmation bias all too simple.
The success of the Trump campaign also owes a debt of gratitude to the internet. While traditional media outlets mocked Trump as a joke of a candidate, his supporters took to the internet to garner support and attack his rivals. Those who find Trump’s more xenophobic statements appealing can find a place to discuss them online as well. While those who held dissenting or radical views may have previously struggled to find a forum to discuss their opinions openly, the internet allows a home for all political viewpoints, no matter how extreme they may be. In many ways, the internet has taken power away from the traditional media outlets. But it has created an environment where radical or potentially dangerous ideas may also flourish. Furthermore, while traditional media sources are not above writing misleading or false stories, the level-playing field of the internet makes misinformation, a growing problem online. False or misleading stories can spread incredibly quickly, and there appears to be little we can do to prevent this.
Looking forward, it will be interesting to see if this trend continues. If for instance, liberals only talk to other liberals and only consume news from liberal sources, and the same holds true for other political positions, it surely will not be healthy for our contemporary political discourse. With political discussions becoming as heated as ever, one hopes more people decide not to live their online lives exclusively within a safe space of like-minded opinions. Let us hope that the marketplace of ideas is something that more people realise is essential for a healthy democratic society.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Social Jungle.