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Is social media polarising society?

Think about it: 1.49 billion people on average log onto Facebook daily; every second, on average, around 6,000 tweets are tweeted on Twitter; and since its inception, over 40 billion photographs have been posted on Instagram. We live in a world where we aren’t only consumers of information but creators as well, which gives us a misplaced sense of control. It is misplaced because we live today on social media in filter bubbles and echo chambers, and our experiences are dictated by algorithms. As we approach the end of the second decade of this century, social media and the Internet have drifted from their promise of closing distances and exposing us to the views of those who existed beyond our personal networks. Instead, we find ourselves to be more rigid versions of our former selves.
Living in echo chambers
In the 1950s, a series of psychological experiments called the Asch Conformity Experiments was carried out by the social psychologist Solomon Asch, to determine the extent to which a person’s opinion is influenced by a group. Asch found through a series of trials that an individual was willing to go to the extent of giving a wrong answer just to conform to the majority view. The respondents gave wrong answers either because they did not want to be ridiculed or thought of as “peculiar”, or because they believed that the group was better informed than them. Although means of communication and engagement have evolved since the 1950s, the human instinct to fit in hasn’t changed. To some extent this also explains the impact of fake news online, which is said to contribute to a polarised society.
Fake news is an industry today and finds great resonance with people. Its rise corresponds with a growing distrust in the mainstream media. Fake news has now even slipped into traditional media outlets and is often circulated by prominent individuals. This has contributed to the echo chamber phenomenon. People seek “informed” opinions through filters only from people they trust and look for news that confirms their world view. This results in people cultivating rigid opinions of issues that they would have probably been more willing to discuss in the past.
Social media sites are more than willing to play abettors. Twitter, for example, will routinely prompt you to follow people who hold a viewpoint that is similar to yours. Social media creates and services needs, which could be the narcissistic impulses encouraged by Instagram or the strengthening of deep-rooted biases on Twitter and Facebook.
Not open to diverse opinions
A study carried out by Aalto University, Finland, this year on increasing polarisation on social media found that factors like user homophily (users in a social system tend to bond more with ones who are similar to them than to ones who are dissimilar) and algorithmic filtering have created this cycle of enforcing and reinforcing belief systems and ensuring that we don’t open our minds to diverse opinions. The study suggests that algorithms must be created to identify trigger topics and find diverse opinions that might otherwise be kept out.
While the democratisation of discourse that social media has brought about is undeniable and most welcome, we are getting trapped in narrower world views that are seeping into not only voter behaviour but everyday personal interactions. This is something we must be alarmed about. Log in or log out, the world is a far more opinionated place today but it need not be a rigid one.
(Advaita Kala is an author and columnist)
(The Hindu)

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