Anti-Social Media Part III — Piercing the Bubble

In my last two columns I explored how social media is changing the consumption of news and the tenure of political discourse. Social media platforms are built upon users communicating with people who generally already share their views, so most communications simply reinforce opinions. The algorithms powering the platforms create our user experience based on our profile, our interactions through the ubiquitous ‘Like’ and the affinity groups the algorithm places us in. The result is not the world wide web that connects us with the world as was first hoped, but the social media web 2.0 is increasingly tailored to be a “web of one” in the words of one tech pioneer. We are more connected than ever before, but we are becoming more isolated than ever before.

Watch: Beware Online “Filter Bubbles”

In my experience, most people don’t realize the extent of filtering on social media and repetitive messaging that places them in their own preference bubble with only a partial view of facts and differing opinions. The days of fact checked, multiple sourced news and discussion is slowly fading away. The chaotic environment on social media explains why many prominent voices in journalism and politics have publicly left social media platforms in recent years, but the dominance of these platforms explains why they all return months later. It is becoming impossible to be a voice in the national conversation if you are not part of the platforms hosting the conversation. From late night tweets from the US President to the recent resignation of Trudeau’s closest advisor, news is now designed to break on Twitter. Once the news is on social media, the various preference bubbles feverishly work to harden attitudes of their occupants and attack opposing views within minutes. The opportunity for intelligent debate is slipping away before our eyes.

Read: Technologists Are Trying to Fix the “Filter Bubble” Problem That Tech Helped Create; and, Let’s Break Out Of The Personalized Internet Bubbles Dividing Us

How can we pierce the preference bubble and restore some truth and civility to political discourse? I believe this is the challenge of our time and why I have reevaluated my own approach to social media. Perhaps some of my “preference bubble hacks” will help others with their own decisions related to social media engagement and I welcome others to share their thoughts and suggestions on how we can accomplish this.

Read: Hi from the Other Side

Audi Alteram Partem. My favourite Latin phrase from law school is now my guiding principle for social media. It means “Hear the Other Side” and to do that on social media you must force yourself to break out of your bubble. Follow voices and sources that you normally would never hear from. If you follow Ontario Proud – which drives the left around the bend – try to also follow Rabble, which elicits a similar response on the right. I try to follow people who regularly criticize me on Twitter, so that I can better understand their point of view. It also helps me determine which voices are sincerely trying to make a point and which are just throwing darts. It balances out my impressions of discussions in the digital public square.

Second, strive for informed and respectful dialogue even when it is hard to do so. I try to remain a strong – even tough – voice on issues that I care about or that are important to my riding, but I also try to be fair to people with different views. When I present a point of view, I try to rely on primary or reliable sources – not conjecture. Link to a reputable news source to show your view can be backed up. Do not rely on what happens to be trending in your network without verifying it.

Third, try and hold others you engage with to the same standard that you hold yourself to. I readily admit I am not perfect online. I try to acknowledge error and avoid rushing to judgment. I will also hold others to account for relying upon false information and will try to encourage serious dialogue. It doesn’t always go well, but I feel it is my way of trying to pierce the bubble. People are often shocked to have their viewpoint questioned, which shows that too many voices are using social media to have a conversation with themselves, or their affinity group.

Fourth, challenge anonymity on social media. If people had to place their name and likeness beside everything they say, dialogue would improve. We also know that foreign entities are using social media to influence political outcomes. We should all try our best to be the guardians of the platform we use. If more people called out the robots (bots) and nameless voices that pursue only conflict, I believe it would make a small, but meaningful, difference to the environment and level of discussion.

Finally, try and mix up your own feed to ensure it is not just a steady stream of critique and criticism. A healthy democracy requires strong accountability through criticism, but often opportunities for insights, positivity or praise for others are missed because of the echo chamber effect. Again, I struggle with this as an opposition politician almost daily. I find that humour can be an effective tool on social media, as it can allow you to make a hard-hitting point in a funny and less personal way. At the end of the day, make sure you define your news feed and not the other way around.

These are my own personal rules for the ever-bumpy road of social media. I may go off the road or have a collision before the week is out, but I am trying to navigate towards smoother driving in the future. Please share with me your thoughts on this series or how you try to navigate the digital highway. Of course I must say, if you liked this column, be sure to like it and share it on social media 😉.

Read: Eager To Burst His Own Bubble, A Techie Made Apps To Randomize His Life