Social Media and Echo Chamber Elections

Social media is notorious for being an echo chamber. It repeats what you already think back to you, often amplified, rarely more harmonically. All the while dampening access to alternative melodies and harmonies. It affirms your existing opinions. Your tune is the right tune, your drum the only drum. To mix my metaphors, like a planet with a large gravitational field it captures you within the orbit of what you - or your group, your interpretive community - already think. 

However social media does not, as it so often likes to claim, democratise thinking. For it has its own demagogues, its high priestesses and priests. The arbiters of orthodoxy operate on the one hand by of millions of retweets and on the other the threat of appalling censure. Depart from received opinion and you can find yourself unfriended, deplatformed, demonised (maybe even killed if you are of a gentle disposition) by twitterstorm or simply isolated and chucked out of the in-crowd. It might not be the Spanish Inquisition (nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition) but there are nevertheless some pretty powerful incentives not to challenge the high priests and priestesses. 

Fine, you might say, there is no forcible association with social media. You don’t have to belong. But that is to ignore the fact that at least among Western Millennials just about everybody signs up before they realise there might be a problem. Social media is thus frequently a tool of group think masquerading as a tool of individuality and self-expression. Rather than taking public discourse from the hands of the powerful and putting it in the hands of the powerless it often simply places it in the hands of a differently-powerful group to the old one without anyone noticing because the new media elite don’t have offices at the tops of tall towers.

The other thing about social media is that by dint of being an unnuanced medium it tends to extremes. It actively excludes alternative, perhaps ameliorating, voices. Group dynamics maintain the in-crowd by dismissing, even to the point of dehumanising, the out-crowd. Social media attracts its fair share of what have become known as “virtue signallers”, those who parade their own value by heralding their great commitment to whatever cause is deemed virtuous by the community. Of course if you define your cause as virtuous and yourself as a champion of said virtue, what does that make those who disagree? They are no longer merely mistaken, misguided or wrong because what they oppose is not my ideas but me. And I am virtuous which makes them at least risible and possibly evil. How else could they oppose virtue? If they weren’t evil they would be over here with us and the fact that they aren’t has to mean they can’t be good or virtuous. Because if they are good or virtuous that means our group doesn’t have a monopoly on those things. The tools of narcissism don’t just work by telling us that we are great, they do so by telling us everyone else is appalling. We demonise the Other in order to exonerate and praise ourselves.

And then, of course, social media is rapidly killing traditional print media with its emphasis, however flawed, on fact-checking, public accountability and extensive - and therefore expensive and therefore dying - investigative journalism. (Even the Guardian is frantically appealing for subscribers on the basis that it will otherwise go under, for crying out loud). And - oh the horror for the social media crowd - different views, competing, comparative, trying to persuade in the same newspaper. Did the old media not research their niche audience well enough? Surely they couldn’t have been sufficiently naive to think that their audience actually wanted to read a variety of opinions? How very last century!

The recent elections have been extreme. The responses after the event equally so. There have clearly been many on each side who have bought the idea (actually been sold the idea) that their opponents are entirely and utterly negative. Black holes devoid of all virtue and humanity. Just look at how much Hitler/Chamberlain rhetoric has been thrown around recently. Not only have they nothing good to say but anything they might say is pre-interpreted as actively evil and opposing our valiant forces of goodness. America, never averse to a bit of Black Hat / White Hat dualism, has taken it to wholly new levels of inability to compromise. One by one all the more compromising candidates fell in line behind the most polarising and unconcilliatory leaving the average voter with a stark choice - vote for us or vote for evil. 

There are large numbers of younger voters in America (and to a lesser extent in the Brexit referendum) for whom the recent elections are the first and only large scale vote in which they have participated. Clearly some have found it a shocking experience: “those people only won because they lied to us” is not just an winsome and endearing response from first time voters, it is also astonishingly naive about the sides they themselves chose to support: “its us against the liars so the vote should be retaken on the basis of truth-telling.” Much as I like the instinct towards the virtue of truth-telling, the idea that one side only tells the truth and the other side lies (horrifyingly winning by doing so, the bounders!) is a position I doubt could have existed for voters who haven’t spent half their lives on social media before being ask to take part in their first election. 

Note too that those who are used to thinking in binary terms about themselves and others are now turning disagreement into perceived conflict. Not agreeing is now offense, micro-aggression, disrespect, even shame. How dare you suggest by your voting position that I am not the arbiter of correctness? My relativist worldview has brought me up to believe that is oppressive. It is my basic human right to never be contradicted. I don’t believe in truth and you are going to force on me the result of decisions I do not like and make me live with their consequences. What kind of tyrant are you?

And so emerges the Great Divide. The other lot are no longer rational actors with real lives and real concerns because I no longer have a real facility to listen and discuss. Only to try to impose my view, to fight by fair means or foul (nothing is too foul anyway because they are aliens and what is at stake is, you know, the whole world), to ignore ideas and deny opponents the field by depersonalising them - and to respond in shocked disbelief when it doesn’t work. 
The point of democracy is participation. The effect of social media is to try to exclude, especially by making your opponents literally non-people. After all they weren’t there in your social media feed so you’ve never had any reason to think they and their views actually existed. Until they awkwardly popped up at election time and expressed things you find unbelievable because you don’t believe them and you only ever listen to yourself being reflected back to yourself. 

If there is a positive result from the recent elections (and I will be the first to say how depressing the whole thing is) its that social media didn’t exclude the Other. Amazingly it didn’t skew things (or if it did then it did so in highly complex and unpredictable ways). Perhaps the subsequent meltdown is at least partly an inchoate feeling of betrayal at our own darling media. Surely we weren’t lied to, were we? No, no, shift the blame anywhere else. Whatever the problem, it can’t be me and my lovely Facebook feeds (though, ironically, it clearly can be them and their lying Facebook feeds which are so full of propaganda, falsification and incorrect news). 

When the dust settles, the world is still turning (I will repent this piece if it isn’t!) and the more cataclysmic propositions from the virtue-signalling prophets of doom are seen to not come true one can only hope for some more serious reflection on why things got so overheated. And what we have lost in the absence of an ability to hear and interact well with carefully expressed views with which we happen to disagree. All kinds of horrors have moved into the vacuum created when civil discourse left the room.

(Rant over. Next post I will try to give a little more specifically Christian reflection on the subject)