Beyond the Echo-Chamber

I deliberately follow a number of people on Twitter with whom I profoundly disagree. Over the last couple of years I have been reading the literature on social media & researching how people use it – so I now follow people with whom I don’t agree.

At the CCRI we have trialled some of the software used by campaigning organisations as part of a review of our communications. One of the aspects of these very sophisticated tools that is apparent, indeed deliberate, is the creation of what I describe as an ‘digital echo chamber’.  Across your email, Twitter, Facebook & potentially other media, the messaging you’ll hear will be your own opinions coming back to you. It becomes part of persuading a group of people with whom you already largely agree to become more focused and organised.

In recent political initiatives, as diverse as the rise of UKIP through to the election of Jeremy Corbyn, you can see the power of the echo chamber. Galvanise a group of like-minded people & present a mid-range goal, then opportunities can be rapidly seized. This works particularly well if you combine it with physical meetings to reinforce the momentum.

My question is does this help democracy? Studies increasingly show that social media pushes opinions that are often populist & to a degree transgressive.  In turn this reinforces partisanship, that the ‘others’ in this debate hold views that are quickly & easily caricatured. Radical thinkers such as Zizek have warned against the simplistic temptations of such politics as it leads ultimately to intolerance & dangerous uniformity.

Debate, discussion & informed decision require more than 140 characters, a wider set of partners than those I already largely agree with. An insurgency toward a mid-range goal, such as a referendum, a party leadership, a piece of legislation that can be achieved but are they actually political mirages? For example the question is not whether should we leave the EU but what sort of country would we be afterwards. How will that change questions of equity, power & justice, is it really imaginable that this will be achieved by removing EU directives?  UKIPers, it seems to me, are searching for something more profound than that change.  

Rather the discussions & changes required require us to talk, to agree to change across lines of difference, across a range of issues not imagined yet in the echo chamber.

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