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Social media’s echo chambers may do to society what radio once did


My Times column on the way social media polarises discourse and raises the political temperature: 

Schisms of hatred seem to be fracturing the political landscape wherever you look right now: the police versus the black community in America, Sunni v Shia, Wahhabism v the West, Trump v Hillary, Labour v itself, Brexiteers v Bremainers, climate “alarmists” v “deniers”. All are glaring at each other across cyber-chasms of flaming verbal magma.

This is not entirely new, of course. Binary disputes are the fuel of history: king or parliament, right or left. Yet it does feel worse now than for a while. Even Leadsom v May turned nasty at the end of last week — on social media at least.

And there’s the cause of the problem: Twitter and Facebook. Social media is polarising our discourse more painfully than before. It amplifies the personal and the extreme, hots up the echo chamber and gives wings to lies. Confirmation bias rules, preaching to the converted dominates, nuance vanishes and moderates stay silent.

I am a bit of a technological determinist about this. I think communications technologies can decide the political temperature. After decades in which they generally helped moderate discourse, outside autocracies, they are now inflaming it. When blogging was all the rage a decade ago, at least there was space for nuance. Now, opinions are boiled down to a single shout.

I use Twitter mainly to find and pass on links to articles and reports on topics that interest me. To do so, though, I have to wade through bitter feuds, walk past vicious ad-homs, jump over blatant embellishments and bump into absurd hyperbole. “I can’t even remember what it is like to go to bed not feeling homicidal with rage,” read one tweet on Friday, not from a Black Lives Matter activist or a relative of a Dallas policeman, nor from an Islamist or the relative of a victim of Islamist bombing, but from a distinguished journalist upset about Brexit.

I am not the first to make this point. A Pew Research Centre project in America found that “Polarised crowds on Twitter are not arguing. They are ignoring one another while pointing to different web resources and using different hashtags.” A group of Italian academics published a paper last year finding that “selective exposure to content . . . generates the formation of homogeneous clusters, ie, ‘echo chambers’ ”.

Charlie Munger, vice-chairman of Berkshire Hathaway holding company, has said that when you “start shouting the orthodox ideology out, what you’re doing is pounding it in, pounding it in, and you’re gradually ruining your mind”. The tech entrepreneur Jason Hreha says that we are “continuously confronted with political and societal outrages, but the personal nature of Facebook means that our emotional responses are on steroids”.

Not all of this is spontaneous: some is the result of deliberate, well-funded policy. The journalist Asra Nomani has chronicled how the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation set out to create an army of online trolls and “began trying to control the debate on Islam. This wider corps throws the label of ‘Islamophobe’ on pundits, journalists and others who dare to talk about extremist ideology in the religion . . . The insults may look similar to internet trolling and vitriolic comments you can find on any blog or news site. But they’re more co-ordinated, frightening and persistent.”

Defenders of the orthodoxy on climate change use the same tactic. They have been caught urging each other to “send in the troops to hammer down” anything heretical and to “grow the team of crushers”. It works: the crushers assembled by the author of those phrases bullied the pollster Nate Silver into dropping the accurate but moderate Roger Pielke as a contributor to the website FiveThirtyEight. Facebook stands accused by an insider of consistently creating newsfeeds biased against conservative sources. On controversial topics, Wikipedia is plagued by entryism.

The world has been here before. When radio was new in the 1930s, it played a big part in the rise of dictators and the descent into war. “It would not have been possible for us to take power or to use it in the ways we have without the radio,” said Joseph Goebbels in 1933. Oswald Mosley’s key request, via his wife, to Hitler was for funds for a radio station. Radio was the ideal tool for propaganda.

A fascinating recent study by five social scientists, from Berlin, Barcelona, Moscow, Michigan and Paris, found that the “relatively mild anti-Nazi slant in radio news programmes between 1929 and 1932 was effective in substantially reducing the Nazi Party vote in three consecutive parliamentary elections. In 1933, Nazis took control over radio and began airing pro-Nazi propaganda; in just one month, this fully undid the effect of anti-Nazi radio of the previous four years.”

Radio played the same role in the Rwandan genocide in the 1990s. A recent paper in the Quarterly Journal of Economics by David Yanagizawa-Drott found that “the main radio station broadcasting anti-Tutsi propaganda during the Rwandan genocide significantly increased participation in the violence against Tutsis”.


During most of the 20th century, however, radio and television proved to be milder influences, excluding extremists and concentrating news and current affairs in the hands of moderate professionals, often tied down by requirements for impartiality. Ed Murrow, Robin Day, David Frost, Dan Rather — irritatingly self-important people though they were — were hardly likely to encourage support for a Trump or a Farage.

Donald Trump first gained fame on television too, but it is through social media that he has repeatedly used shock to keep his name in the news. A bit like Clodius in Ancient Rome, he has discovered how to ride an inflamed mob against the patricians to power.

Could hatreds fomented on social media lead to actual violence, even war? With the recent signing of the Colombian peace treaty, the western hemisphere is arguably without war for the first time in history. Yet after the events in Dallas last week, after Paris, Brussels, Orlando and Istanbul, after the murder of Jo Cox, and after Labour MPs feared for their safety in Parliament Square during a pro-Corbyn rally, we may be entering a more dangerous age.

We need to find a way to tame Twitter, to fence in Facebook, to insist on net neutrality and revive moderation. To do so while respecting free speech and without handing government the power to propagandise and censor, will not be easy. But it must be attempted before the mutual shouting gets worse.

By Matt Ridley | Tagged:  rational-optimist  the-times