The internet and social media platforms have a big impact on our lives and they might even change and divide us in many ways. What are biases, filter bubbles, and why are social media platforms trying to divide us?
Technology can be seen as a miracle of modern times, but does it divide us? Not even two centuries ago we couldn’t even imagine that we could fly, there was no possibility to call someone or even have a video conference where you share a document at the same time. This computer and internet-driven have had many effects on our daily lives.
The internet allowed us to connect, share and interact through social media platforms, look for information online and consume content without limits. In a way, it was turbocharging our social interaction in a whole new way. We got used to scrolling, browsing, swiping, and tapping through the virtual world without limits and with never-ending content generated by people we love, admire, adore, or even envy.
But all these connections, possibilities, and abundance of information also have consequences. We are extremer when it comes to choosing our partners, as apps like Tinder give us the impression that just 1 more swipe away there is an even better match, Instagram hooks us with a perfect world where people are only happy, rich, and successful and filters give us the impressions that there is only a perfect looking face/body/vacation is the norm. We are bombarded with fake news, we are trapped in a world where we only see the content that best matches us and we even only get connected with people an algorithm chooses for us.
These consequences also lead to a divide in our society.
The Problem with Social Media
To understand the basic underlying dilemma of social media, we have to understand the mechanics behind them and their business model. First of all, we have to understand that the users are the product. Everyone using platforms like Facebook, Twitter, etc. agrees to be analyzed and to see advertisements. Therefore, the platforms try to maximize the time you spend on the platform, trying to use manipulation-techniques that create anxiety in your brain to keep you hooked on the content so you stay longer on the platform and consume more content so they can show you more advertisement.
The main goals for social media platforms are:
- Get the most information about a user, his life, his living standards, etc.
- Get the user to share more content
- Get the user to consume more content
- Get the user to interact with other content
- Get the user to invite more users
- Get the user to interact with advertisements
- Get more brand awareness
Second, we need to understand that the only real customer of social media platforms is the paying advertisers. All social media platforms are trying to optimize their outcomes. So, your data, time, and interaction should then be monetized by nudging you into the right direction so you change your opinion, you buy something or you are more likely to do something. This influence on you and your decision is the value that can be monetized for the social media platform providers.
Fake News are part of the problem
Nothing is more boring than the news that is not “activating” or “controversial”. So-called “click-bait”-content is content that is actively trying to activate regions of our brain where the “Fear of missing out” is produced. This content is specially crafted just to sound extreme, sound super interesting, or super controversial that a lot of people click on it. For this, you also have to realize that clicks are like the gold standard on the internet. The more attention you get, the more successful the news outlet, influencer, and platform get.
But the hunt for controversial content which leads to lots of discussions, shares, and also interactions is also a hunt for a lot of fake news. We have seen a lot of false claims going viral when many people share them and push them through the internet, but on the other hand, the “boring truth” barely makes it into the top 10 reads.
Even Facebook, Google, and other platforms are fighting hard to detect and eliminate fake news, the truth is they want to have it on their platform because that increases the user retention and interaction rates with the platform.
Filter Bubbles explained
For understanding why we can be the target of such content and why we also sometimes only see similar content, we need to understand the concept of a “Filter Bubble”. This is a common term used for describing a situation where only pre-filtered content is being presented in your own unique universe of information that you live in online. So you only see specific content in your timeline where you previously showed interest or you interacted with.
A simple example is when you look some days in a row DIY home-improvement videos on Facebook, you will suddenly see lots of home improvement videos, content, and page suggestions in your timeline. To make this happen other content is being pushed down or even deleted from your content list. Social Media platforms try to perfectly optimize this filter bubble so they make you stay longer on the internet.
Now here is the problem of it. Just imagining you see a controversial post where someone published fake news and you just try to make it clear that this is wrong and you share for example a reliable source. Then the algorithm thinks you like this content because you interacted with it. On the next day, you see two of these posts and the day after even more. Suddenly you are in a filter bubble where you don’t want to be and you start seeing news and even posts in a biased way because suddenly you only interact with a certain group of people.
Social divide – Creating biases
When we only see the same people with the same beliefs, we start to think unconsciously that this is right. This is also why algorithms only present white people to white people, women to women, and therefore you get biased in your world.
Also, a good example is Instagram. This app is one of the kings in optimizing your feed to your likings. When you like tall blonde women, you will only see a world full of tall blond women. When you only seek motivational quotes, everything will remind you to become successful and how the rich live their life. This pushes us into lots of biases and even shapes how we see the world outside social media.
Radicalization in politics
One good example in real life is always politics as it is largely influenced by your surrounding and by the information you consume. For centuries the bi-partisan system of the USA was always leaning from both parties towards the center and liberal ideas. Pew Research Center conducted Surveys in 1994, 2004, and 2017 and found that the liberal view is being replaced by radical views on the top 10 policies. This is also attributed in a big part due to social media and the interaction with content in filter bubbles.
When you get bombarded with fake news about stealing, raping, and criminal foreigners, you start to believe that they are actually criminals. This leads to a more radical view and ultimately to a more radical voter pattern. (Of course, the same goes for the other way around also)
How to escape this filter bubble?
There are some tricks to eliminate some effects of your filter bubble to get at least more opinions and more diversified content into your feed.
- Follow people with a totally different opinion
Just actively look for people who have not the same opinion and might add something totally different to your feed. This will help to get a diversified view.
- Scroll through feeds from other people
Just look for interesting people you never heard of and try to scroll through their feed to see different opinions and what they get “filtered”.
- Actively filter your feed
With every article, you can say that you want to see less of these suggestions. Usually, in the post-options (3 dots menu, etc.) you can say “I want to see less of this content”. This will help you shape your content stream and maybe even bring more useful content to your stream.
- Do the research
It is usually hard to find real evidence. But when you have the feeling that something is just there for click-bait purposes, then research if it’s really true or just block them as mentioned in the tip before.
Verdict – The dangers of a radical world
We are bound to a world where social media is slowly replacing our physical social contacts. We never consumed more content than we do now and we need to realize that we are being utilized. Platforms like Facebook, Twitter, etc. are trying to optimize the way how they can steer, direct and influence and we need to be aware that this is happening, so we got a little chance of counteracting.
Of course, we can not just quit all social media channels but we have to have a very different approach in consuming these services. We need to be aware that everything we see is just the perfect “optimized” content-world that we keep being addicted to the content and we spend as much time as possible scrolling around and browsing new content. This attention economy will be there forever as pandora’s box was already opened and we just have to learn how to deal with it for ourselves.
Without certain political regulations and without limiting our media consumption as a whole society, we are on our own to decide which content we consume, how long we interact, and if we believe everything that is presented to us online.