Stories about online echo chambers need a fact-check

Broadside: We don’t seek out people we dislike in real life, so why should we online?

Being in your own bubble? Don’t knock it till you’ve tried it. Photograph: AFP/Getty

Being in your own bubble? Don’t knock it till you’ve tried it. Photograph: AFP/Getty

 

There has been a lot of talk about social media echo chambers in 2016 and it’s worth looking at as we inch closer to the end of this year.

In the aftermath of the US presidential election, Facebook was identified as being a key player in the outcome of that particular disaster – due to the proliferation of fake news stories and articles that wouldn’t know a fact-check if it hit them in the face.

Social media as a sole source of news is undoubtedly an issue and probably not the best way of going about things, but I’d question whether an online echo chamber – with the caveat that it’s accompanied by a healthy dose of self-awareness – is such a bad thing.

Personally, I enjoy my Twitter echo chamber.

I’m well aware that I’m only really following people that I agree with on the majority of issues.

In real life, you’re not expected to actively seek out people you don’t like and make yourself socialise with them, so why is it any different when it comes to who you like to surround yourself with online?

Go ahead and throw a New Year’s Eve party full of people you can’t stand if you want, but that sounds like a terrible time.

I’d much rather follow people with similar viewpoints to mine, whose communication style involves drag queen GIFs, making clever jokes and posting pictures of their excellent cats and Christmas trees – instead of people I find tedious, who feel like everyone owes them an argument and that we’re a generation of so-called, (although seasonally appropriate) “snowflakes” for thinking it’s bad form to be racist or say awful things about trans people.

No interest in a row

Why should we be expected to fill our timelines with people who hate us?

I have absolutely no interest in getting into a row with someone on Twitter or having to scroll through terrible opinions in order to qualify as having exited the echo chamber.

Having an online community of people who’ve got your back and make you laugh doesn’t mean that you have no idea what’s going on in the wider world, or that you don’t realise there are wildly differing opinions to your own ones out there.

The comment sections of any news site make that abundantly clear.

Real life doesn’t go away just because you’ve decided to fill an online space with like-minded people whose company you’d enjoy in person.

It doesn’t mean that work colleagues will agree with everything you say, or that an older relative isn’t slightly racist any more, or that everyone suddenly agrees on repealing the Eighth Amendment.

We’re still surrounded by mainstream media and sometimes simply going about your day, outside of this cosy middle bit between Christmas and New Year downtime can be enough of a reality check – so, why not have an online chamber to retreat to?

Awareness of the fact that there are a wide range of opinions on every topic and making your timeline a place where you feel supported and happy, particularly over the course of a year as objectively awful as the one we’re almost through with, surely isn’t something negative.

If anything, those very chambers often become a place that spurs people on to organise movements and campaigns, collaborate on projects and encourage each other in real-life endeavours, outside of the online sphere.

And anyway, people with a similar worldview often disagree, so even the most echo-y of echo chambers will still involve discourse of some sort.

Clever jokes

At the end of November, Twitter installed a new measure that allows users to filter notifications according to certain words, a welcome step in tackling their long-running problems with handling online harassment.

However, it also prompted fresh cries bemoaning echo chambers and that it was just going to reinforce the bubble that some choose to operate within, when it’s really a very useful tool that can spare users from racial abuse, unwarranted comments about their looks or weight, or for (generally) female users, from men explaining their own jokes back to them.

Not every opinion needs or deserves to be heard out.

How we use our online space is entirely up to ourselves, and with the knowledge that Twitter is obviously not representative of the country as a whole, and that you shouldn’t believe everything you read on Facebook, then I say curate away and build that chamber for yourself, if that’s what you want.

I’m certainly going to continue to enjoy my feed of clever jokes, hot takes on Love Actually and secret plots to smash the patriarchy in 2017.

Long live the online echo chamber.

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