Bursting the social media bubble

orwell social media bubble

Bursting the social media bubble

Orwell partner Gary Mead on why we need to make sure that we control our sources of information and don’t let the algorithms decide for us

“It just can’t be good for us that we are more and more only listening to those views that we agree with”. So said one of the interviewees on a BBC radio show this week.

Thanks to algorithms that track our on-line usage, we are increasingly surrounded by views that resonate with opinions that we already hold. The polarisation that we all perceive to be happening in our societies is no chimera: Facebook, for example, provides us with a ‘curated feed’ that decides for us – thanks to an algorithm – what we read. When it comes to news and opinions, that curated feed provides us with a pre-masticated diet. It’s possible (though not easy) to click to an uncurated feed; but many avoid it because they don’t want to do their own filtering of the mass of information that swamps them.

It’s not so much ‘fake news’ that’s the problem. It’s the fact that algorithms are pre-determining for us what we read online. It’s a kind of digital dictatorship; as the BBC programme said, “social media sites have become a new breed of editor”.

What’s happening to information in our society reminds me of a (now forgotten) book by a US philosopher, Allen Bloom. Back in 1987 he wrote The Closing of the American Mind. Bloom argued that liberal values had, by preaching total relativism– that anyone’s opinion was as good as anyone else’s – deceived and failed America’s university students. Bloom’s book sharply divided reviewers. But what it at least did was to put on the table a critical issue: do all opinions have the same value – or are some more worthwhile than others?

In the social media digital world, where we have, almost without noticing, moved from personally selecting what we read, to having what we read pre-digested and fed to us, Bloom’s nightmare – that irrationalism and the erosion of belief in objectivity – has come to pass. We need to wake up and burst this bubble. We need to make sure that we control our sources of information – not let the algorithms decide for us.

Bursting the social network bubble by Bobby Friction was first broadcast on BBC Radio 4 at 11.00am, Wednesday 18 January 2017. You can listen again here for up to 30 days from the date of broadcast.