Escaping the Echo Chamber

Social media allows us to tailor the truth, writes Cormac Dineen. What can be done about it?

If you are a university student in 2017, the smart money says that you spend at least an hour using social media every day. Be it Facebook, Twitter or Instagram, social media has undeniably morphed into a crutch, a crutch without which our generation would find it impossible to get through the day. By and large, we use social media as a tool that just makes our day easier. We can contact people in an instant, be reminded of events that we would like to attend, and now, even pay people money.

The point is, social media is incredibly useful, and it’s gotten to the point at which if you took it away, along with the entire emoji keyboard, the Earth would in all probability stop orbiting the Sun.

We might even have to start using our actual faces to express emotion again – an eventuality which must be avoided at all costs.

Credit: Flickr

For me, the most useful aspect of social media is keeping up with News and Views. It’s no secret that newspaper circulation is at an all-time low, and even though your parents may still nip down to the shop for a paper on a Sunday, I think I speak for most of us when say that I’d rather just log into Facebook or Twitter. In the event of any major world event such as a natural disaster or a terror attack you will be updated with all known facts within seconds, the time it takes for you to refresh your feed. This is a wonderful resource to have access to and helps anyone who can effectively wield it become more informed on happening globally, or in any specific field of knowledge that they have an affinity for. In terms of social views and opinions, you have access to vast troves of articles that can help you become better educated and aptly equipped to field questions on topics like politics, society, philosophy and science, which could otherwise be somewhat removed from your field of knowledge. From an objective standpoint it seems like a system that can only serve to benefit the user, unlimited information at the tip of your fingers, but there’s a huge and crushing problem; censorship.

You may well have read last year about Facebook censoring Nick Ut’s famous photo ‘The Terror of War’. The photograph, colloquially known as ‘Napalm Girl’ depicts a young, naked girl running down a rural track in the village of Trang Bang, near Saigon in south-eastern Vietnam, in 1972. The little girl has quite obviously experienced terrible burns from a US napalm attack and consequently, ‘Napalm Girl’ is an image that has been used for decades to symbolise the human cost incurred when states commit their people to war.

There was widespread outrage when Norwegian newspaper Aftenposten had the iconic image forcibly removed from their Facebook page with Facebook citing ‘Nudity’ as the grounds for removal.

Credit: wikimedia

Regrettably, Ut is now merely one of an alarmingly large cohort of people who have had important works censored by Facebook, and this serves to show that there is an elite who can in certain circumstances, control what you see online. This is a very dangerous thought, and while the instinctive reaction for many people may be to break out the tinfoil had and curse those omniscient powers who deliberate over your demise late at night in dimly-lit rooms, this is an oversight. There is a far more powerful and infinitely more stubborn villain censoring what you see on social media, and you see this villain every time you (often disappointedly, in my own case) look into a mirror.

The major problem with your newsfeed on social media is that it is a collection of sources that has essentially been produced by pre-emptively filtering out any worldview which you find offensive, or wrong, or stands in stark contrast to your own. For a page to consistently appear on your timeline, and share their opinions with you, you have to have ‘liked’ the page – and therein lies the rub. As someone with somewhat left-leaning politics, when I look to my Facebook newsfeed for current affairs, I generally see liberal news outlets like The Guardian, The New York Times, and The Atlantic. Comedic work that appears on my feed generally consists of socialist memes coupled with endless literary caricatures of figures like Donald Trump, Theresa May or Jacob Rees Mogg. I often find myself invited to some solidarity protest, or a talk given by a liberal public figure. This can all be attributed to the fact that pages I like generally consist of like-minded people writing about topics that interest me, and observing the world through a kindred lens.

I feel safe in drawing the corollary that when people with opposing political and social beliefs to myself look at their news feed, they see exactly the same thing, however, if you put our newsfeeds side by side, the product is two vastly different perspectives on what are ultimately the same issues.

I believe that without introducing variety, and liking pages or people that you politically and socially disagree with, reality begins to take a back seat. In the past year, as well as the usual-suspects somebody like me would use to track world events, I have also commissioned the help of some blow-ins.

Credit: Wikimedia

Milo Yiannopoulos, when he is not spouting caustic nonsense about matters he doesn’t understand, has added a huge dimension to the censorship debate for me: in my opinion, there certainly is a leftist elite in Universities who often overstep the mark on what they can and cannot allow people to say or do. Fox News, when they are not running stories about soldiers, or God, or soldiers who found God, or soldiers who found God in Texas, added some fact-based opposition to certain leftist agendas, that had not previously occurred to me: the liberal media often do omit certain home truths, such as the severity of Hillary Clinton and her Campaign team’s criminality in their efforts to stop Bernie Sanders from achieving the Democratic nomination. Even Breitbart made an appearance on my timeline, a news outlet that added absolutely fucking nothing whatsoever to my worldview, bar confirming that there are people out there who are genuinely as mad as a bag of spiders (admittedly, I’m probably doing a disservice to spiders in this instance).  

In essence, the point I’m trying to make is that there’s always been widespread disillusionment with the higher powers controlling the media, be it Mark Zuckerberg, or Rupert Murdoch, or any of the few big corporations that control a huge majority the media. But in my opinion, expecting total honesty and integrity from mainstream media is based on the romantic and perhaps quixotic notion that the media serves nobody’s purpose. At the end of the day, these are enormous companies with owners, directors, shareholders and a whole political sphere of their own serving interests that the average person would struggle to imagine.

Credit: Havard Gazette

There isn’t a damn thing you can do about it.

The only possible antidote I can see for this poisonous potion of censorship and equivocation is to assume that every source is telling only some of the truth, and to hunt for further information yourself. This can only be done by exposing yourself to a greater proportion of conversation. So do me a favour: next time you see something on Facebook that sends you into a fit of anger, like a page, give them a week or two and see if they make any reasonable argument that gives you food for thought. See if they can add further considerations to some side of a debate in which your colours had already been firmly nailed to the mast. It’s only through the comparison of many differing views that you can come to a conclusion that is inclusive of all the facts.

Alternatively, if you are one of the tin-foil hatters, you could unfollow everyone on Facebook except us, and trust that Motley Magazine will continue to provide you with the only independent voice untainted by corporate puppet masters.

But hey, why the hell should you believe me?