Rabia Sattar Zia
The mechanism that is most often offered for this state of events is the existence of echo chambers or filter bubbles. The argument goes that first social media platforms feed people the news that is closest to their own ideological standpoint (estimated from their previous patterns of consumption) and second, that people create their own personalized information env-ironments through their online behaviour, selecting friends and news sources that back up their world view.
Once in these ideological bubbles, people are prey to fake news and political bots that further reinforce their views. So, some argue, social media reinforces people’s current views and acts as a polarizing force on politics, meaning that “random exposure to content is gone from our diets of news and information”.
With the rapid and exponential growth of connectivity and networking predicted by Moore’s Law, the Fourth Industrial Revolution is disrupting many fields, but none more strikingly than democracy – and capitalism. Both institutions are based on the freedom to choose a leader, product or service based on the best available information. But only now are we realizing the significance of how this information is created, delivered, modified and consumed – how it has been skewed by the exponential growth in communications technology.
After Brexit and the election of Donald Trump, 2016 will be remembered as the year of cataclysmic democratic events on both sides of the Atlantic. Social media has been implicated in the wave of populism that led to both these developments.
Attention has focused on echo chambers, with many arguing that social media users exist in ideological filter bubbles, narrowly focused on their own preferences, prey to fake news and political bots, reinforcing polarization and leading voters to turn away from the mainstream. It has been responded with the strange claim that his company (built on $5 billion of advertising revenue) does not influence people’s decisions.
From the advent of language and the alphabet, through the evolution of printing, broadcast and the telephone, the control of communications was historically in the hands of a privileged few.
Private-sector social media platforms, such as Twitter and YouTube, allow anyone to transmit information to the masses without gatekeeper approval.This has redefined the broadcaster-audience equation. Previous power-brokers can no longer control the limitless information passing directly through cyberspace to personal smartphones. Entrenched rights are being dismantled, a new power is emerging in the world and ICT is leading this change.
There have been many benefits to society from this change. It’s now much harder to conceal things like political corruption, product defects and inadequate service. When politicians miss parliamentary sessions or make different promises at two different campaign sto-ps, the news is immediately disseminated. For businesses, a “hot mic” moment can go instantly viral or a seemingly minor problem with a product can evolve into a global recall – and corporate scandal — in an instant.
Compounding that, traditional forms of individual and mass communications are waning. Witness shrinking print newspaper readership, broadcast television viewers and fixed line telephones.
In 2016, a perfect storm of technology advanced combined with marginalized voices led to everything from Brexit to the recent U.S. presidential elections. Even with the huge growths in online retailers at the expense of their physical counterparts, we were all confronted with a new world order in which traditional assumptions of everything from news reporting and polling to advertising could be wrong. This is causing every government and business leader to question how to lead effectively and responsibly amid the confusion based on inaccurate information.
These surprises weren’t supposed to happen in the era of big data and artificial intelligence. Both the quantity and quality of information were supposed to get better. But as we became comfortable and confident with technology, the fundamental way we communicate and exchange information also changed.
This era of anytime mobility helps like-minded individuals band together via social media. They share information which isn’t necessarily incorrect, but is definitely myopic and biased, leading to what psychologists call “confirmation bias.” In the last few years, supporters who shared tweets and articles and reaffirmed beliefs that furthered their cause unleashed a populist movement that changed everything from geopolitics to who gets to live in America’s White House and South Korea’s Blue House.
Pundits everywhere have been speculating about how the economy, international politics, immigration and even the environment will change with these surprises. But even before these events, the world was already changing. Just ten years ago, such electoral results would not have been possible. In fact, back then the five largest companies on the planet were oil or oil-related. Today, the five largest are all information-based – data has truly become the “new oil” and, as with oil, it’s a resource that’s full of opportunities and surprises.
Unlike traditional public utilities, communication infrastructure and media, as well as the infrastructure underlying the internet, is now mostly owned by private groups. This is another example of how the balance of power between public and private forces has changed and even transcended boundaries of sovereignty, further complicating governments’ roles and making this a truly global issue.
Leaders today must realize that the revolution in communications is not an extension of the old ways, but a whole new paradigm. Anyone can become a broadcaster, pollster or news-maker. The full meaning of this change, evident in the votes of 2016, is only starting to reveal itself.
Politics is a lot messier in the social media era than it used to be – whether something takes off and succeeds in gaining critical mass is far more random than it appears to be from a casual glance, where we see only those that succeed.
Meanwhile, the only thing we can really predict with certainty is that unpredictable things will happen and that social media will be part of our political future.