You cannot read an article about social media today that doesn’t mention algorithms. Proponents say that they’re a much-needed tool to cut through the noise and serve us what we want. However, no advances in tech come without drawbacks.
And, sometimes, those drawbacks have repercussions that can be felt beyond the borders of our screens.
In an August 2014 study, the Pew Research Center looked into the way that we share our opinions on social media platforms. They focused on the “Spiral of Silence,” a mass-communications theory that says individuals hesitate to share their opinion in public if they feel that there may be a chance their point of view isn’t commonly held. This makes sense psychologically. Hecklers, emboldened by online anonymity, have certainly made many comment threads hostile to say the least.
Interestingly enough, many social media proponents say that social media platforms actually provide open forums for “silenced” individuals to freely express themselves. They say that social media platforms provide more opportunities for public discourse and the sharing of diverse opinions. They say social media transcends borders.
The reality, however, is that confirmation bias - the tendency for us to search for, and favor, information that solidifies our preexisting beliefs – is rarely taken into account. This bias is so strong that it bleeds into our social behavior and shapes our social networks.
Meaning, even though social media platforms could create the environment for diverse social interactions, they rarely do.
Our tendency to connect with people who share similar beliefs as us is too strong.
I highlight this issue because I believe social media is more powerful than we realize in shaping the future. I believe it’s fair to argue that we need an honest and respectful exchange of diverse ideas and opinions today more so than ever in the past. And, I believe that nothing could unite us as a world more than the empathy such sincere interactions would create.
Those who actively seek out diverse opinions to ensure they understand complex issues are one step ahead of the masses. But they’re few and far between. So how do we get there? How do we overcome the lack of internal motivation so many display when it comes to looking beyond themselves? What can be done externally to help facilitate understanding and acceptance?
I’m not sure that I have the answer. But one thing I’ll say is that many of the algorithms being implemented today only serve to make the problem worse. Perhaps, platforms could show us suggested articles that come from a different point of view instead of showing suggested content that simply reinforces our current beliefs. This could serve as a small step in bridging knowledge gaps and ending the “spiral of silence” that keeps so many from voicing their opinion and enlightening others.
Do I believe social media is broken? No. However, I think we need to ask social media companies whether or not they truly want to use their platforms to create a better world.
If they do, perhaps they should consider using algorithms to challenge our biases instead of using them to reinforce them.
I would love to get your opinion on the matter and hear what you think can be done to make social media work to unite us. If you don’t think social media algorithms are a part of creating division between us, I would love to hear your opinion as well.