Alex’s Agenda

52% blamed EU for their problems, blame social media for yours

By Alex Wood 29 June 2016
image: istock/Getty

Take a good look at your news feed.

It’s time to wake up. We’ve all been living in a bubble. A bubble made worse by social media.

Society hasn’t changed overnight. Fears of inequality, immigration and the establishment were all there, we were just too blind to see them.

Offline, I’ve seen how bad things have turned. Half of my family live in a Northern town that I’ve watched decline year after year. Things are so bad that even the charity shops closed down.

Pointing the finger

This is a national issue, not a regional one. Millions up and down the country rightly feel ignored by politicians and the media.

But for me, the worst crime is how people have been filtered out of the conversation. And for that, I point the finger at social media.

Social media fanatics say new media is the great leveler. This open playing field where everyone can have their say. But that simply isn’t true.

Shouting at people who agree with you won’t work

How many times did you see people support leave in your news feed? By filtering it out, we became even more divided. Our Facebook feeds polarised the debate.

After the result I did a lot of soul searching online. I assumed everybody I knew was as shocked as I was.

Before the result, my friends shared pro-EU status updates and ignorantly mocked the “racist” and “uninformed” messages from the Leave campaign.

Facebook saw what I “liked”, built a profile for me and kept serving up what I wanted to see. This algorithm is what makes Facebook the addictive monster it is. Brilliant for keeping me in the loop with my interests, disastrous when it comes to politics.

I had to work hard to unearth my long lost friends on Facebook who had decided to vote Leave. These were people I grew up with and went to school with. If I saw their posts, I wouldn’t have tried to change them, but I would have the chance to relate. Why should an algorithm filter out the real views of people I care about?

Instead of an active debate, we were stuck in our own echo-chambers, sharing the same point of view, liking it and thinking the job was done.

Suppressing conservative views

It gets worse. Over in the US former Facebook workers who were responsible for “trending news” told the media they “routinely suppressed conservative news”, under the instruction from the top.

We don’t yet know if the same happened in the UK. But we need to start asking the hard questions.

You’re probably wondering about Twitter too.

Yes, Twitter is a more “open” platform that isn’t skewed by algorithms, so shouldn’t things be better? Wrong.

Our own Brexit monitoring tool, powered by Buzz Radar, showed the volume of Leave tweets were in the lead throughout most of the campaign.

Did you see them? Probably not, because our unconscious bias on who we choose to follow helped filter them out.

Twitter and Facebook don’t care about showing balanced opinions. They may not have a legal requirement to do so, but do they have a moral one? If services like these really are for everyone, they need to step up and fix this.

In Brexit Brtain we need more Dimbleby.

Contrast this mess with broadcast media. Shows like Question Time may not be perfect, but they’re in a different league.

Unlike social media, TV debates handpick audiences against a balanced panel of pundits. That way we get to hear the other side of the debate, not an echo-chamber of views that match our own.

In a post-brexit world, we need to hear the views of everyone. It might not be high-tech, but it’s time to take this debate offline and back into the real world.

If you’re still angry, stop being angry on social media. You’re wasting your time, the other side won’t hear you.

For more unicorns, cats and cultural imperialism, read Alex’s Agenda.