Filter Bubbles

This is a blog post based loosely on some stuff I tweeted about a week ago, which Andrew Ducker asked me to expand into a blog post. As it comes from a tweet thread, it’s a little disjointed, but you may still find it interesting. It’s about the way that social media reinforces people’s views and radicalises them, and I’m going to use politics as an example here but it actually also applies to fandoms, to religion, and to everything else about which people can have an opinion that also functions as a group identity.

I’m becoming more and more convinced at the moment that the way social media reinforces people’s ideas is not, as the conventional wisdom has it, because we surround ourselves with people who agree with us. Everyone says that this is the case, but I actually know relatively few people who surround themselves with such a filter bubble. They do exist (and they’re mostly older people, and those less net-savvy, which is why you get the stereotype of the angry Brexit voter who doesn’t know anyone who voted Remain and is angry because of something that was shared from the Daily Mail), but they are a very small minority.

(And in fact, most of the filter bubbles I’ve come across have been from real life — people who only talk with people of the same race or social class, only socialise with their work colleagues and family, and so on. Online it’s harder to avoid people from different backgrounds and with different opinions than it is in physical interactions).

Most people online, like in real life, fall into two basic categories — the people who don’t care about politics or discuss it at all, who tend to not see or join in political discussions at all. Those people don’t see other political perspectives just because they’re not actually interested in politics, and don’t really have political opinions. They’re the people who vote Labour because we’ve aways voted Labour in this family, or who vote Tory because they feel sorry for Theresa May and the way people pick on her, or who don’t bother to vote at all. Those people aren’t in filter bubbles because they don’t think about politics enough to enforce a filter. They might sometimes say things which sound like political opinions, but they’ll contradict themselves a few minutes later, and they’ll think that whichever party, if any, they vote for agrees with them, even if it doesn’t.

The other major group is the people like myself who are obsessed with politics — the ones for whom it’s an autistic special interest or a fandom or a hobby. The latter group tend, in fact, to see every type of opinion. I know the opinions of, to take well-known people from the commentariat, Ian Dunt, John Rentoul, Polly Toynbee, Katie Hopkins, Owen Jones, “Wings Over Scotland”, and Aaron Banks, about pretty much every important issue today.

And that, right there, should give you a bit of a clue as to why we’re *really* getting radicalised. It’s not because we can see the people who agree with us, it’s because we can see all the arseholes who disagree with us. (you may well not think all the people I listed are arseholes, but I can guarantee you that the one or two in there that have you thinking “well, *that* person’s OK…” are loathed with blood-boiling hatred by a lot of people).

Every political grouping has some absolute wankers in it (some more than others, of course — both UKIP and the Tories are basically decent-human-free zones right now, as is the Republican Party in the US). But pre-social media you’d have to make a real effort to come into contact with the wankers outside your own group. Twitter has changed that.

Now we can all see, and be angered by, the transphobic FBPEers, the Corbyn supporters who claim that any criticism of their hero is a Jewish conspiracy and that George Galloway should be welcomed back into Labour, the Labour centrists who think that the Iraq war was just a minor matter to be waved away and that people who keep bringing it up should get a life, the Wings Over Scotland fanboys who will make sure that any woman expressing an opinion on Scottish politics gets subjected to misogynist abuse for the rest of her life, the Lib Dems who still refuse to acknowledge that anyone could reasonably be upset about the coalition, the moderate centrists who think that anyone who doesn’t want immigrants punished for existing is a radical extremist lunatic, the Hillary people who still blame Bernie Sanders for Hillary Clinton losing the election, the Bernie people who refuse to believe that Hillary could have actually got more votes fair and square…

…and because they’re the loudest voices on their sides, we think “well if *that’s* what $politicalgroup is like, then fuck them! Obviously my group is the only decent one!” Because we all know that what gets retweets is not the sensible, thoughtful, empathetic people saying, say, “well, I’m a Lib Dem but I can absolutely see why we lost the trust of radical young people in the coalition, and why Corbyn still has that trust”, or “I basically support Corbyn, but he needs to take note of the views of his young supporters on the EU, and take a stronger pro-EU stance, and I’d like him to clarify his view on anti-semitism”, it’s people saying “Corbyn is in the pay of Putin and is causing Brexit like the conspiracy theorist he is #FBPE #PeoplesVote #ModerateCentrist” or “FBPE is an anti-Corbyn plot run by the Zionist media!”

Because while we see the utter wankers in our own group, we also see the good people who are sitting there with their heads in their hands saying “oh for fuck’s sake shut up, you’re making us all look bad”. But all that the other side (whoever the other side are) sees, unless they go to great lengths to search them out, are the utterly vile people.

If you’re a Lib Dem and the only times you see Corbyn supporters are when they’re calling you “yellow Tories” and calling for you to be shot, and you know you’re not a yellow Tory and don’t really feel like being shot, you’re not going to stick around and have a sensible discussion with them about different modes of railway and train operating company ownership. If you’re a trans person or an immigrant, and you look in the FBPE hashtag to see tons of trans-erasing radicalised fascists and people who talk about how “we need to control immigration more to get the electorate on side for the people’s vote!”, you’re probably not going to volunteer for the next pro-second referendum street stall in your town. If you’re looking at that thread about how gulags are Good Actually, Not Bad Like You Think, Ah!… well, to be fair, that is a pretty decent representation of what Tankies are like.

There’s not really a moral to this, other than “don’t be a dick” — and even there, *everyone* is a dick in the eyes of someone else, and while being more civil is definitely a worthwhile thing to do, there’s a fuzzy boundary between being civil and being one of those “both sides” people who thinks that other people’s lives are up for debate. There’s definitely a very valid argument for telling people to fuck off if they need telling to fuck off.

It’s just… don’t blame filter bubbles when we don’t live in them. We all have access to every opinion in the world, constantly.

Indeed, for many of us, it would be nice to *have* filters — to not have social media forcing hatred and toxicity into our faces every time we go online to just have a chat with our friends. The result of “filter bubble” discourse is Twitter fake-liking fascists’ tweets from your friends’ accounts so you’ll be sure to see them.

There’s not much we can do about this, other than remember that there are, if you look for them, reasonable Corbynites, Marxists, pro-EU campaigners, Liberals, Democrats, Liberal Democrats, Labour centrists, and all the other subgroups in politics outside the racist right wing. Just because we’ve all got (or in some cases *are*) That Idiot Who Makes Us All Look Bad doesn’t mean that everyone in those groups is like that.

Apart from Tankies. Fuck those shitheads.

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2 Responses to Filter Bubbles

  1. Ironic, of course, that the widely credited progenitor of “Don’t be a dick”, so much so that in many places it is known as Wheaton’s Law, has himself turned out to have been a dick to many many people.

    It’s almost like human beings are flawed, or something.

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      I’d completely forgotten that that phrasing was promoted by Wheaton, but you’re right of course.

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