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Did we ever listen to alternative viewpoints?
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There is a great calamity in the air: social media is polarising society1 and tearing us apart…

People are herded into an echo chamber by algorithms, their views reinforced by newsfeeds that block out alternative points of view2

Quartz published a chart (pictured below) showing how twitter outrage stays within ghettos of extreme opinion isolated from each other3

Visualisation of research by William Brady et al, as published in Olivia Goldhill, ‘One graph shows how morally outraged tweets stay within their political bubble‘, “Quartz”, 8 July 2017

As a result, we are surprised by Brexit, or Hillary not winning, because no-one, no story, no opinion infiltrated our narrowcast world.

But!

Social media isn’t doing anything new here. Before social media we bought newspapers that shared or reinforced our views. Polarised views, diametrically opposed and vehemently held, have always lived side by side in society. But in the past, we lived largely in blissful ignorance of them.

In a 1962 letter from Bertrand Russell to Oswald Mosley (found thanks to a retweet from @edwest) two aristocrats exchange a private correspondence, where Russell makes it clear to Mosely that he finds his ethos “alien and repellent” and wont’ have any association with him in public life.

A letter to Sir Oswald Moseley from Bertrand Russell, from 1962.

The two live in distinct ‘emotional universes’. Their exchange is done in private. Once written by letter, it is finished.

In 1962, such polarised views were visible only in Parliament, on a street demonstration, in opinion columns, or letters exchanged in newspapers or in private.

Today social media reveals how polarised we are; and does so without ceasing.

For most of us, such exposure to awkward political views were limited to tense exchanges at Thanksgiving or Christmas when relatives shared their strongheld offensive opinions over the punch bowl. But social media hasn’t just lifted the veil between friends and family. Prior to social media the views of a complete stranger, and the strength with which they were held, were a complete unknown. Only a car bumper sticker or poster in the window would give a glimpse of the fractures in the social harmony hard won by sweet ignorance. That and the mysterious process of the secret ballot whose results told you people thought differently to you. Once your next door neighbour went home and closed their front door, their opinions were held in private.

Nationally too, before social media, we usually only ever witnessed polarised views on the TV in a news broadcast. For example, I grew up in the South East of England during the 1980s where bulletins of the miner’s strike led by Arthur Scargill, or the Troubles in Northern Ireland, were a glimpse of polarised views in society. It was distant, sanitised and only lasted from 6pm through to 6.10pm any given night – and then was over.

Social media has changed that. We now have a constant supply of views alongside an intimate portrait of the people who hold them. Perhaps then the most profound effect of social media has not been to ghettoise the electorate, but rather to introduce the electorate to each other.

A New York liberal with nothing better to do, lying on their couch in a smartphone coma, is drawn in by intrigue and repulsion to view the choice of home décor, leisure pursuits and tacky memes a West Virginia Trump supporter demonstrates on instagram. A Daily Mail-reading housewife in Northamptonshire, England, sits on the toilet and views a Periscope video live on twitter aghast as a Corbyn supporter dances around with a Hezbollah flag at a protest in Westminster.

The chaos of another’s universe is so alien that we want to slam the door on it… unfollow… unfriend… go offline… stick with what we know. And that may explain the chart above and its demonstration that people’s outrage is largely only shared with like minded followers. Algorithms, herds and ghettoes may be social media’s way of sparing us too much constant dissent from our own settled opinions. But we are no longer sealed off from others as we once were.

So – to finish off – if polarisation has always existed… if people have always herded together… and such chaos has managed to co-exist for decades… then you have to take your hat off to the democratic system and how it has managed to coordinate it so peaceably to date.

Yet! Now that we can all see each other; do we run the risk that our herds will stampede?

Footnotes
  1. Cross, Mary, “bloggerati, twitterati, How Blogs and Twitter are Transforming Popular Culture”, Praeger (2011), p.13
  2. D’Ancona, Mathew, “Post Truth: the new war on truth and how to fight back”, Ebury Press (2017),pp. 50-51
  3. Olivia Goldhill, ‘One graph shows how morally outraged tweets stay within their political bubble‘, “Quartz”, 8 July 2017