Social Media, Echo Chambers, And The Problem of Assumed Knowledge

It’s become rather cliché to talk about the failings of social media of late. When even the (now former) Prime Minister of Great Britain, David Cameron, is moved to say ‘Britain and Twitter are not the same thing’ when explaining why polls were so wrong leading up to the 2015 election, you know you’re hardly at the cutting edge of the debate.

The point is, everybody knows by now that social media is a bubble. But that’s not just a problem in terms of only seeing content and views that you like; minimising influence from what’s perceived as the other side of the debate. That is just one of the many issues that social media has, and the one I want to talk about here is one which I would term the ‘assumption of bad intent’.

Recently, for reasons of which I myself am not totally sure, I have been looking into people who debate on social media and how the dynamic works, particularly when it comes to how people talk about politics online.

What I’ve found is that not only do people surround themselves with views with which they are familiar and comfortable, they are also automatically suspicious of anyone who comes from whatever might be perceived as a different viewpoint, and make automatic assumptions about the motivations behind that person’s actions, words, and thoughts.

The Echo Chamber

Social media is isolated enough that debate rarely occurs in any meaningful form in any case, and yet this is stifled even further by the fact that we are so comfortable in our little bubbles, so surrounded by our own words and terms and ideas, that anyone who stumbles across our little lives and pricks that bubble is assumed to be a negative actor.

Not everyone has the same knowledge base, and yet too often we assume someone who doesn’t fit our assumptions is being ‘wilfully obtuse’, to quote any number of Twitter users I have observed over the last two weeks.

There is a lack of a willingness to give people a chance to use the right term, to quote the right figures, or to be explained to; instead we assume people are trolling simply because they do not see what we see to be obvious. And so conversation breaks down and everyone retreats further into their own little world, where everyone thinks in the same way and knows which words to use, and when.

And that’s a problem.

We have become far too quick to dismiss those who offer to engage in genuine debate and conversation as timewasters simply because they have a different knowledge base to our own hyperspecific one. Genuine time wasters do abound on social media of course but, to appropriate William Blackstone, I would rather debate ten trolls and have one meaningful conversation than throw the baby out with the bathwater and dismiss anyone who approaches something from a different angle as disingenuous.

The best analogy I can reasonably come up with is this: If a paleontologist were giving a lecture would they expect their audience to know as much as they do about dinosaurs, would we expect them to break off their lecture and cry, exasperated ‘this is common knowledge, and if you don’t know it you’re being willfully ignorant/obtuse’?

Of course not. And yet we see it day after day on social media, across both party lines.

Politics isn’t easy. There are nuances and subsets and minutiae that the layman could not even begin to imagine. And yet, because it affects our daily lives, it is often assumed that we must know everything about every policy point if we want to politically engage on Twitter. It’s a mastery of whataboutery and deflection that manifests itself as questioning someone’s motives if they do not think along the same lines as you.

The Twitter Paradox

Political Twitter users are particularly guilty of this. It may be something to do with the limitations of 140 characters; perhaps people just don’t have the patience to explain to their questioners exactly why they are wrong in a series of ten tweets. I suspect it also has something to do with the follow system vs the friend system that Facebook uses. No matter how much you try to insulate yourself on Twitter, someone who thinks differently will find you, and at some point you will have to defend your views.

We should relish the chance that this gives us. If you are politically active on social media, chances are you want to talk about this stuff anyway, so why not talk to someone who thinks differently? Who knows, we might all learn something.

— — — — — — — — — — — — — — — -

This piece originally appeared on Tremr