Escape from the ‘filter bubble’ — intercultural tips and tricks for journalism and communication

Prague Media Point Conference on Media and Migration, Nov. 8th 2016

As suggested by Prof. Myria Georgiou of LSE Media[1], “it is perhaps time to return to the digital as space for communication rather than representation”. Trump’s election has (tragically) mainstreamed the concept of ‘filter bubbles’ and highlighted the never crossing paths of parallel societies and discourses. Yet, citizens and communities, on- and offline, have not lost their ability to engage in dialogue and critical thinking. Much can be learnt from intercultural experiments in community media on what it takes to create spaces that allow divergent opinions to cross and interact.

Floating side-by-side, but never touching

Social media are helpful in grouping specific communities, across boundaries of language and continents, around their topics of interest. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, SnapChat, Tumblr and others are offering an invaluable platform for networking, empowering and educating, be it about mental health issues, feminist concerns or how to load a gun. However, as explained by Prof. Charlie Beckett, “they are also programmed to follow the flow of our prejudices — like tends to connect with like because we prefer that to communication that challenges.[2]” People affected and moved by similar questions can find support and answers, but, much like in the offline world, these different communities exist alongside one another, with little interaction or communication between one another.

Researchers and activists have been pointing to the use of algorithms, originally designed for social networks, in journalism as one of the factors leading to an increasingly polarized communication environment. According to Gilad Lotan from New York University[3], As we construct our online profiles based on what we already know, what we’re interested in, and what we’re recommended, social networks are perfectly designed to reinforce our existing beliefs. Personalized spaces, optimized for engagement, prioritize content that is likely to generate more traffic; the more we click, share, like, the higher engagement tracked on the service. Content that makes us uncomfortable, is filtered out.”

In her latest book “Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in the Digital Age”, MIT professor and clinical psychologist Sherry Turkle examines how the public’s increased reliance on digital communication and social media at the expense of face-to-face conversation is harming civic discourse, impairing people’s ability to listen to alternative viewpoints and to develop skills to dialogue, compromise, and build consensus.

If technological design and emotional dynamics in sharing and liking tend to reinforce divisiveness, rather than offer opportunities for interaction, what could promote a healthier (online) communication culture?

From coexistence to cooperation — lessons from community media

Community media have traditionally provided space for experiments of self-representation and empowerment, as well as for many creative collaborations. They have existed as alternative channels of media production and distribution long before the advent of social media. Community radios in particular have a long history in terms of audience interaction, for example through live, moderated ‘open microphone’ discussions.

Different communities find their space in community media — linked by language or ethnic origin, by gender or sexual orientation, by political ties, by lifestyle or by artistic and musical tastes — but also with distinct social, religious or cultural backgrounds. With such a diverse backbone, the challenge for most community media organizations has been how to create a ‘sense of community’ across the multitude of sub-communities and languages — some community radios airing programs in more than 20 different languages.

At Radio LoRa in Zurich, multilingual programming was the starting point for better engagement with audiences and other media activists, followed by experiments with interculturality. ‘Mixing the punks with the housewifes’, on- and off-air, created unexpected results. People that would normally never have met or interacted, had a platform that facilitated participatory processes, exchange and identification with the radio as a whole, beyond their single individual broadcasts. After some initial diffidence, stereotypes were questioned, prejudices debunked, and in some cases, permanent collaborations or friendships ensued.

The intercultural projects however required specific funding and resources, a ‘curating’ of the initiatives aimed at creating dialogue between different age groups, gender(s), sexual orientations, socio-economic conditions, political perspectives and cultural backgrounds. Stronger cooperation between different sub-groups and a shared sense of responsibility lasted also after the end of the project cycle — but not for long. Without a clearly defined commitment to ‘relationships of equity based on the respect of differences’, conflicts nearly tore the radio station apart only a few years later. After a difficult reconciliation process, intercultural projects have been re-introduced, and a new sense of community is slowly emerging — at least between the groups part of the radio ‘bubble’.

The ability to focus on similarities, rather than differences, and to define shared interests and common values across cultural and national borders, needs to be nurtured, and is the outcome of intercultural processes. Can some lessons be learnt from community media, when it comes to dialogue and democratic participation in on- and offline environments?

Your audience is (still) out there

Despite John Herrman’s harsh critique in the New York Times of the inability of mainstream media to read the signs of change — “on social platforms, all media had become marginal; elsewhere, much of the media was in structural collapse”, European research findings show a different picture. Citizens, and in particular young citizens, are looking for high-quality, reliable content and selectively choose (and support) their information sources, whether on- or offline[4]. A study by the Centre for Power, Media and Communications at Roskilde University, Copenhagen found that negative conclusions drawn about social media interactions are often based on marginal examples, involving divisive topics. When regular online debate was examined, over the period of one week, the study found that Internet debate is mostly neutral and harmless. The researchers believe that “the community managers from established online media could act as moderators of online debate, by asking more positive questions and not posing confrontational questions at the outset. The media itself could even opt-in to the conversation in a constructive way, not just moderate by deleting comments”.

The research findings on online news discussions presented by Prof. Marlis Prinzing at the Prague Media Point Conference[5] also showed a dialogue-oriented attitude and a clear openness for discussion when online communities feel they are taken seriously. The study excluded on purpose conversations marked by hatred. Attitudes and profiles of user-commentators were examined and this also raised the question of whether “such kinds of community-building should become a core function of professional journalism”. Apparently, a constructive debate is possible — and can potentially enhance social responsibility and common values.

The disconnect between large segments of the population and professional journalism is engendering mistrust and creating a vicious cycle. When people are denied public participation and voice, their issues, experiences and concerns are rendered invisible, and they become more vulnerable to prejudice and manipulation. Being socially marginalized because of low skills or economic disadvantages most often also means not getting any critical media literacy training. Access to technology doesn’t automatically lead to empowerment — policies addressing ‘the digital divide’ need to acknowledge that it is mainly education that determines whether or not “ICT exacerbate existing inequalities by increasing the opportunities available to the already privileged while leading to the growing marginalization of the disadvantaged”[6].

How can mainstream and public service media survive in the ‘filter bubble’ scenario? By learning from community media — and not only in adopting their crowdfunding strategies. A focus on information literacy can build critical awareness and empower active media-producers and multipliers within their communities and beyond. Mainstream media would also benefit from diversifying the profiles of their staff and management — especially in terms of socio-economic background — to provide alternative viewpoints and insight. Investing in online audience moderation is another crucial step to regain credibility as an actor able to inform, educate and provide access to opinions and technology in a participative way. And finally, including basic intercultural skills in journalism training — curiosity, empathy, freedom from prejudice, ability to accept ambiguity and complexity — would encourage a form of public debate where “citizenship is strengthened by reasoned disagreement rather than weakened”[7].

[1] Myria Georgiou, Dept. of Media and Communications, London School of Economics, Keynote speech at the Prague Media Point Conference on Media and Migration, Nov. 8th 2016.

[2] “The role of Emotion in the future of Journalism”, http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/polis/2016/09/06/the-role-of-emotion-in-the-future-of-journalism/

[3] “Social networks and the art of personalizing propaganda”, https://medium.com/i-data/israel-gaza-war-data-a54969aeb23e#.i3efq0ptl

[4] Mediascope Europe, “Connected life of Digital Natives Bullettin”, http://www.iab.fi/media/tutkimus-matskut/iab-europe_mediascope-europe_connected-life-of-digital-natives_bulletin_july2013.pdf

[5] Marlis Prinzing, “Community-building — a leading skill for professional journalism and dialogue within a changing society?”

[6] Eszter Hargittai, “The Digital Reproduction on Inequality”, Westview Press, 2008.

[7] http://www.thepublicdiscourse.com/2009/10/945/