2017 will wake us up to the distorted reality of social media

Last year vividly demonstrated how social media can be used to distort reality and foster extremism, writes Simon Pont.

The only thing ultimately redeemable about 2016 is that it’s now over. From the viewing gallery of a freshly unwrapped new year, glancing back still has a certain Grimm’s aesthetic to it.

At the geopolitical level, 2016 was a horror show, a democratic horribilis, a set of big joke election outcomes that went from before-the-fact absurd to results-in shocking – and where the long shadow of consequence remains anyone’s guess. But there’s a big "however" in this mix. The dark-days diatribe of the previous paragraph is but one man’s perspective. And if 2016 taught me anything, it taught me this: my social media does not reflect any kind of balanced commentary.

In 2016, my social media predicted a liberal-view landslide as inevitable. Which is why on the morning of the Brexit result, my Twitter feed was bursting with dismay, disbelief and sadness. Because it was my Twitter feed. It was not a sentiment tracker for how the country truly felt. It was more off the pulse than on it.

When Donald Trump was announced president-elect, the news was therefore received with more shock than surprise for many. America had trumped our Brexit, going bigger and better, as they are known to do.

My social feeds went "end of days", a kind of Nostradamus-scribed no-wayback endgame, suggesting we had all just taken one giant leap closer to the edge. Yet on that November morning as my thumb flicked upwards over my vertical feeds, I kept thinking, 62.8 million Americans put this guy in the seat – they’re surely reading a very different kind of human cry.

The loud and clear lesson of 2016 was that our social feeds are not a popular-sentiment barometer. They are a shard of reality, as predictive and reliable as a political poll. Which logically leads to this – the more we use social media and the more we "subconsciously bias" who contributes to it, the more we inadvertently skew and distort our reality of news, of social and cultural comment, of life. And, in consequence, the more we lay ourselves prone to some nasty surprises when events play out otherwise.

Our social feeds are not a popular-sentiment barometer. They are a shard of reality, as predictive and reliable as a political poll

2016 told me I was out of touch with common, majority opinion. Brexit told me I wasn’t as disenfranchised as so many of my fellow countrymen. That I didn’t feel as aggrieved or generally "anti".

I had consumed hungrily the groupthink commentaries of my social feeds, nodded approvingly to the like-minded opinions of like-minded people, and I would have been better off consulting tea leaves for a clearer appreciation of insight and outcome. Which leads to my first social media prediction (and hope) for 2017.

Our blinkers will come off. Our relationship with social media will adapt, as we appreciate we’ve hitherto been wearing blinkers. We will start to more fully appreciate that social media is not Reuters but a self-selected stream of personal preference and selffulfilling editorial.

Simply, we will become self-aware of our social media. And in recognising the filters we have applied, how we have edited out the "unlikeminded", it might just be that we start following the unlikeable, to redress the imbalance. And failing a sudden following of the "unliked", my hope is that we at least start taking our social media with a larger pinch of salt.

Either way, huge opportunities abound for new apps and platforms that can provide us with a diet of editorial balance. And yet, I also predict my first prediction could go the other way.

Our social media consumption and opinions could get "worse", could become more extreme. Which I sadly see happening too. Meaning I’m committing the ultimate hedge  – the prediction of a counter-trend.

As cited, like-minded people do exactly as described. They think alike – and social media reinforces like-minded opinions as opposed to providing the balance of opposing argument. Which is very dangerous because it incubates the wrong kind of tribalism. And it hothouses the hyperbolic, providing a soapbox to extreme, exaggerated and over-the-top views.

What people dare not say out loud, they are very willing to tweet. It’s easier to be extreme on social media, to be meaner, more unkind, more unfounded.

Social media brings out the worst in some of us. And while the argument has always been that cyberspace self-regulates and common sense will prevail, we’re not so much seeing movement towards the "moderate middle" as a clustering at the extremes, at the edges.

Take your classic bell curve distribution. A line in the shape of a bell. Where the majority cluster in the middle. Politically, ideologically, bell curve distribution only applies in "moderate times".

Consider Tony Blair’s New Labour pitted against new Conservative – looking in from the outside, from red to blue and back again, it was close to impossible to say which was which. However, if our new normal is to be one of anti-globalisation, then we can expect to see increasing tribalism and polarisation, meaning the bell curve turns upside down.

Huge opportunities abound for new apps and platforms that can provide us with a diet of editorial balance

Moderate gives way to extremist, where our nature is to counterbalance by moving to one or other extreme. In just the same way that "old media" fragmented, could we start to see similar fragmentation in social media? A wave of apps meeting the needs of ever-expanding minority and extremist groups? Social media atomising in response to microtribalism? It’s easy to imagine.

While 2016 felt a little too much like an episode of Black Mirror, our collective responsibility must surely be to steer 2017 away from being a techno twilight zone of our own irascible making.

Currently, too much of our social media is the digital version of groupthink, where everyone in said group misguidedly aligns and self-congratulates and queues up to drink the team Kool-Aid out of a fire hydrant. A phenomenon commonplace in organisational theory, political and social science, now manifest in social media.

I suspect both my predictions, while opposing, will build themselves from the binary zeros and ones of 2017. Their emergence is not a paradox, rather a likely trend and counter-trend. We’ll see more social platforms emerge, catering to minority-interest groups.

But, with hope, we’ll also wake up to the skewed half-reality of our social feeds and, with greater open-mindedness, attempt to redress the imbalance.

Simon Pont is the chief strategy officer at Brave Bison.

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