I remember having a conversation with an ex many years ago about how our music tastes were starting to diverge. Having once listened to largely the same crop of artists, YouTube, we concluded, was the cause of our differing paths.
At the time, the video network was just beginning to push recommendations based on your viewing habits. This meant, when it came to music videos, we were both being treated to entirely contrasting tracks.
It’s a trend almost all of the social networks and interactive platforms out there have jumped upon. From friend request and follow recommendations on Facebook and Twitter to Spotify and Netflix pushing soundtracks and TV shows your way, our entire digital lives are being guided down a funnel – a funnel designed to make sure we keep consuming, keep engaging, keep playing, all by ensuring we’re never disappointed.
Of course, the side effect of this approach is these platforms rarely push anything surprising or challenging our way, and while that might mean we all end up with incredibly bland tastes in music and TV, when it comes to our social networks, the impact it’s all having is far more profound.
The idea that each and every one of us trapped in a loop, only connecting with people who share our interests, our views, and our perspective is nothing new, but in terms of what this approach is doing to political debate on both sides of Atlantic, we’re only now beginning to get to grips with its impact.
I Agree With Nick
It was in 2010 when the idea of people living within a ‘political bubble’ that reflected and reinforced their own views came into public consciousness.
During the UK general election of that year, the Liberal Democrats – traditionally the third placed party – seemed to be on the cusp of a breakthrough. Personally speaking, my Twitter and Facebook feeds were full of passion and enthusiasm for the party and use of the hashtag #IAgreeWithNick (penned from the very first TV election debate, when then Prime Minister Gordon Brown appeared to endorse Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg’s position time and again) appeared to overflow.
There was talk of the party topping 100 seats and finally breaking the two party grip on British politics. On polling day, my Twitter feed suggested A Lib Dem surge was not only possible, it was actually probable.
In the end, the Lib Dems benefited from a mere 1 percent rise in their share in the popular vote and – thanks to the mess that is the First Past the Post electoral system – actually lost seats, rather than gained them. I, and millions like me, had fallen for the notion that the majority of Brits were on the same page as me. I couldn’t help but get caught up in the hype because every indicator in front of me suggested my views were now the popular views.
It’s a phenomenon that left those rooting for Scottish independence equally perplexed when they ended up losing the referendum in 2014, Ed Miliband fans more than confused when Labour failed to top the Tories in the 2015 General Election and, most recently, those fighting to Remain in the EU left out on a limb when Leave won the day little over a month ago.
The damage to politics isn’t the notion of people being surprised when their side seems to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, however. Anyone who follows politics has to get used to the idea of losing out time and again. Moreover, the worrying result of this political funneling is, no one wants to debate any more.
The echo chamber
If you think about it, it’s hardly surprising. When 99 percent of the political posts on our social networks offer views that, if not identical, are largely in line with our own position, the 1 percent of those that offer an alternative take seem utterly outlandish. Why on earth would this person think x, y and z when everyone else I’ve encountered agrees with me? This person must be nuts. Crazy. On another planet.
The problem is, when you dip your toe into the opposing pool – something you actively have to force yourself to do these days, so sheltered are you in your political bubble – you soon realise those on the other side of the debate are not only just as passionate as you, but equally convinced that their view is the right view.
We’re all rushing to the extremes. If almost all you hear are views that reinforce your own, so your inclination is to push your position just that little bit further. Facebook and Twitter quickly become an echo chamber where there’s almost a competition to be the most vocal backer of your side of the argument. The more entrenched you and your friends become, the more opposed you become to anyone who doesn’t perfectly align with your views.
Actual debate therefore becomes a rarity, and the scarcity of people in your digital circle willing and able to challenge you means you have very little time for anyone who does decide to take you to task. The internet has never exactly been a comfortable forum for reasoned debate, and in 2016, so polarised are people’s views that the very idea of finding the middle ground seems utterly fruitless.
Without rhyme or reason
It’s a situation that (as BBC News’ Dateline London last Saturday so excellently summarised) has lead to the “death of reason”. In the last few weeks, I’ve seen friends abandon any notion of convincing those who take a different stance to see their point of view. Instead, so the idea of people being “traitors”, of being “lost to the enemy” has come into play. It’s a trend that’s most evident in the current Labour leadership campaign.
Here we have people claiming to be supporters of the same party branding the other side as turncoats, intent on killing their cause and handing the battle to the enemy. No one is debating any more, no one is talking any more, no one wants to meet in the middle any more.
What makes this really worrying is, this is meant to be a democracy. The whole point of a democracy is that it enables opposing views to take each other on and, in most cases, challenge each side to better consider the stance of the other.
The physical layout of the British Houses of Parliament is designed to force parties to take each other on, to state their case and then be prepared to defend it against attacks from the opposition, but this isn’t something that’s being reflected by the wider public.
In the world of Twitter and Facebook, the end result of the political bubble phenomenon is an attitude of “its my way or the high way”. So rooted are we in our positions thanks to the recommendation algorithms that define our social networks that we’ve all become mini dictators, damning everyone else to hell and willing to go down with our respective sinking ships rather than come to a compromise.
If you think that sounds like I’m trying to scare you, then you’re spot on. The power social networks have over our lives means this is a dangerous trend, and one that looks like it’s fundamentally shifted politics amongst the people in the west for some time to come. Without proper debate democracy suffers, and the idea of a split Britain being a short term side effect of Brexit is, to be frank, nonsense.
We are a people being pulled apart, and all by platforms that were meant to bring us together.