In the same way that we only meet for coffee with those with whom we have an affinity, in social networks we surround ourselves with those who we like. In the field of digital private relations we think that we are also guided, freely, by our personal preferences, but the truth is that it is the networks themselves with their algorithms that determine who we see and with whom we interact.
In 2004, the technological giant that has the most information about citizens, Google, decided to modify its code so that the search that each user made on its platform would return personalized results.
In Google they were the pioneers, but then all the big digital companies have followed. This had a significant cultural impact, as tech activist Eli Pariser explained, because it brought about the creation of the filter bubbles (bubble filters): we were encapsulated individually (based on our history), invisible (without knowing other like-minded members) and inadvertently (not noticed in searches).
The simplest example is to enter YouTube and see how a series of content proposals appears based on our previous consumption, different for each person. But, going one step further, it is worth considering why the ads that appear when we browse correspond to the searches we have done in stores on-line. It is ignored that, for this, there must have been a transfer of private data. Since 2016, momentous geopolitical events have brought these issues into public debate.
Trump’s election and Brexit, key events
After Brexit was approved, it became known that the Cambridge Analytica company had combined the mining and analysis of Facebook data, without user permission, to promote currents of opinion favorable to the United Kingdom leaving the European Union. Similarly, in the election of Donald Trump as president of the United States, the importance of these bubbles to induce favorable climates of opinion during his campaign was confirmed.
Zuckerberg’s network implements an algorithm so that your feed of news is inspired by our previous experience and that of our contacts. The platform observes which other profiles are paid more attention to – and increase our stay on their page – and prioritizes their posts on our wall. In this way, from previous choices of each person, it isolates it and exposes it only to the contents that, a prioriyou might be interested.
These episodes showed that the most used social network in the world had marketed the personal data of millions of people, had fed the bubble filters and that this, without a doubt, had an influence beyond the screen: in world politics. In other words, not only did he choose who we would drink that metaphorical digital coffee with, although we thought we were being free to choose, but that this had become decisive in historical events.
These phenomena evidenced the importance of the multidisciplinary and rigorous debate on the shaping of opinion in digital spaces.
Echo chambers in the networks and their social consequences
With the algorithms, opinion groups called echo chambers or echo chambers. Despite not being a new concept, it has acquired an unusual potential with social networks. These are delimited spaces within which messages between like-minded people are amplified and, at the same time, they are isolated from other communities.
This phenomenon is artificially fed from these platforms. Thus, for example, when we configure Twitter, it allows us to choose if we see our timeline –wall– in chronological order or if the most prominent tweets prevail, those that generate the most interaction and the application thinks that we are most interested. Mostly, we opted for this second option.
It is understandable that, as in real life, we surround ourselves in the virtual world with whom we like. Decades ago from sociology it was explained with the theory of uses and gratifications. Twitter chooses for us who we drink digital coffee with, surrounds us with similar profiles and hides from us that there are very different people, other topics of conversation and opinions, creating a false appearance of freedom and uniformity that impoverishes public debate.
Selective exposure to information and polarization
Closing the focus is not only impoverishing on a personal level, but also has important consequences in the information consumption that is increasingly carried out through networks. Once located inside the echo chamber, Twitter and Facebook determine which are our closest communication media and thus we receive content that feeds back our opinion. It is called selective exposure and is an old acquaintance of communication sciences.
People prefer media that reinforce their opinion over those that make them uncomfortable. The platforms, which want to keep users browsing their pages and know all our personal information, know how to feed us with the media diet that we like. Facebook creates like-minded communities, thereby increasing the segregation of society into like-minded communities unnoticed. These echo chambers have a strong ideological coherence because they are continually fed by related content and users and, simultaneously, the distance between the groups is increasing.
The strategy of social networks has been nurtured and has contributed, at the same time, to the polarization of society. There is no possibility of refuting the messages, of hearing contrary opinions. A clear us versus them, the two poles, is established with positive feedback for our interpretive frameworks.
In this context, when false news enters the scene, it has a great chance of being shared if it serves to reinforce the opinion of the group, as happened in the Trump election; it becomes an optimal ammunition for the debate between opposites because it is usually very excessive and with the capacity to go viral.
Thus, we are having the coffee that has been chosen for us, with people who think alike and hold in their hands the same newspaper that we like. We are all invited by Twitter without knowing it, which does not pay but charges, and we are unaware that there are other profoundly different virtual coffee shops. Seeing only this reality may seem comfortable, but ignoring contemporary social and ideological plurality weakens coexistence and makes public dialogue difficult.
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