SOCIAL MEDIA BUILDS SILOS OF IGNORANCE
No balance necessary when retweeting posts that affirm your beliefs.
Story by Nicole Pabello
Illustration by Gavin Huang
Edited by Jay Hartwell and Elaine Ramirez
They are wearing bandanas and goggles as the police advance with pepper spray and shoot inflammatories into the eyes of protesters. The night is lit by the video crews, but we see no umbrellas — a merely symbolic defense against the tear gas that dispersed thousands from the Occupy barricades in Central Hong Kong.
For three months, the Umbrella Movement was delivered live through our mobiles, then captured, edited, posted, shared, tweeted and retweeted within a few seconds to thousands more, who retweeted them again. In the first four days of the 2014 Hong Kong protest, these shares reached 1.3 million tweets and posts.
News analysts believe social media helped fuel and sustain the demonstrations. But such social media spirals in Hong Kong and around the world have come at a cost, like the clashes in Hong Kong between pro-Beijing and pro-democracy camps who fought in defense of their ideals.
Since social media enables anyone to release their point of view, the sharing process allows like-minded people to retweet and affirm their point of view with others in their digital community. But this cycle of confirmation bias allows people to live in a bubble without being exposed to other opinions.
Academics are concerned this process narrows our perspectives — whether people choose The New York Times for a perceived liberal focus or the New York Post and Fox News for conservative content. And it is getting easier and faster for users to distribute and redistribute their bias without seeking balance.
Janet Hsiao, an associate professor of psychology at The University of Hong Kong, says the more people repeatedly absorb one-sided content, the stronger their confirmation bias becomes. “You see more; you confirm your bias and it [the bias] can get stronger and stronger. It’s a vicious cycle,” said Hsiao.
“I think the danger of social media is that information availability is very high. Every day we get information from these places and because the [info is] so accessible … you increase this vicious cycle.”
The effects of this came to the fore worldwide during the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign. Confirmation bias contributed to the surprise over election results and polarized Americans who sheltered in divided, social network communities.
In Asia, these effects had been seen years earlier during the Hong Kong protests. After months of circulating Hong Kong news via open channels like Facebook, the protest and pro-democracy camps then decided to construct closed groups on WhatsApp and WeChat, so only like-minded peers could continue their discussion about democracy in Hong Kong without resistance.
Occupy Central demonstrated social media’s public penetration and its impact on political agendas in Hong Kong, where 84 percent of people consume their news online, including social media, according to the 2016 Reuters Institute Digital News Report. The protest affected most of the city’s people, the financial sector, local businesses and the travel industry, while contributing to regional uncertainty.
With such pervasiveness, social media became the nexus of the protests because the community supporting Occupy Central’s ideals used it not only as a tool to document on-the-ground events but also to provide a channel where leaders could organize and mobilize protesters.
The events in Hong Kong also exposed the way people who may not even have a strong belief are also affected. In this phenomenon, called availability bias, all the available information is slanted, and thus biases even an onlooker’s beliefs, explains Hsiao.
During the protest, the big news was the protest itself. All eyes were on the pro-democracy camp and its opposition towards Beijing’s government. Most of the international news outlets covered the events on the ground or published explainers. This could have resulted in availability bias: People without an opinion on the protest might have developed a pro-democracy bias that was reinforced by exposure to the movement’s ideals through social media.
More recently, the impeachment of South Korea’s President Park Geun-hye showed social media’s power to bring together likeminded people, whether pro or anti-Park, who then took action. Exposure in social media got more people to join. The resulting protests brought hundreds of thousands to the streets of Seoul, with both sides claiming 1 million demonstrators. The anti-Park and pro-Park groups used mainly Facebook, Kakao, Ilbe and other social media networks because of a perception that South Korea’s top media organizations support the government. South Korea has the most distrusted mainstream media outlets among those surveyed, as those journalists are considered to have ties with political leaders, the Reuters Institute report also found.
Social media’s instantaneous response and penetration allowed breaking news to be covered as it happened, said young South Korean protester Nova Lee. Using Facebook and Twitter, people uploaded whatever information they found that showed Park abused the people’s right and manipulated the law.
The conflict was a political awakening for the media. The public demanded accurate reporting and moved to online outlets to report information rather than the usual platforms. Korea Expose, an English-language news and culture magazine, reported the pro-Park camp’s discontent and distrust with mainstream organizations as the outlets changed tone from supporting the president to exposing the latest events that triggered her impeachment.
Hong Kong University professor Masato Kajimoto says when people distrust traditional media outlets, they seek news on social media. “This distrust in mainstream media actually laid a foundation for fake news, because people want alternative views,” he said.
With social media’s rising domination as the go-to platform for people to seek news, more can be done to prevent isolated and polarized communities. “Education is key to raising awareness about what availability and confirmation bias are to encourage people to seek more than one source and different angles for every story,” said Hsiao.
Hsiao supports the delivery of fair and balanced news to prevent left- or right-leaning news from becoming the only story that reaches social media users. The next challenge for the news industry will be to implement the social media algorithms that curate news to the user’s preferences. Changing this, she said, will require cooperation by social media platforms, users and media organizations.
Nicole Pabello can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.