Researchers have spent no shortage of time studying the news. Everything from subjectivity to language, to the effect on audiences, has been measured, analyzed and published. And to help us better understand how invisible phenomena play a heavy role in our day-to-day lives, they’ve come up with some pretty fancy terms. Concepts such as filter bubbles and echo chambers are the main characters in the discussion of news curation. If you’re unfamiliar with these terms, don’t panic: we’ll get into it. With the rise of political campaigning through social media, it’s easy to find a comfortable niche of information that aligns with your views by controlling exactly who you follow. What’s important though, is to stay connected to how news curation plays into group identity and shared thoughts on a large scale.
Regardless of whether you’re old school and still read newspapers, or whether you primarily rely on social media apps to stay up to date, there’s no doubt that the information that reaches your periphery has been tailored. In fact, a handful of usual suspects generally have most of the say. Take into account that I write this as a woman who has only ever existed in the western world. The biases that result from selective exposure have undoubtedly breached my bubble. Yet, customized reporting based on geography, religion, political stance, etc. opens up an interesting conversation about the power that media outlets have.
The media industry has had a hold on which stories are spotlighted since the rise of mass communication through newspapers in the 19th century. What was once thought of to be a one-way line of communication from news outlets to their audience, is better understood now as an arena filled with different players. These contenders, to name a few, include the news outlets themselves, citizen journalists, social media algorithms, and diverse audiences. What we see now is that information is often communicated through highly personalized media channels. While that may sound like we, as members of that audience, have more of a say in the media we consume, the current structure of news information actually leads to several adverse effects. Social media has given its users some sense of autonomy but like many things in life, it can be a double-edged sword. This is where terms such as filter bubbles and echo chambers come into play.
First, let’s take a look at echo chambers. In short, the term describes the phenomenon of thoughts or beliefs being reinforced continuously without counter-argument. Echo chambers generally form when individuals' thoughts are amplified, and little to no opposition is given. Think about a room filled with your best friends on your birthday. Is anyone going to disagree with you? Probably not. Now imagine that every political thought you have is hyped up by your best friends on your birthday, except that validation comes from renowned news platforms. It might seem comfortable, but it gives you zero reason to challenge your own opinions.
Echo chambers are generally considered to be a result of indirect exposure, while filter bubbles consider a more direct line of selectivity. With filter bubbles, online algorithms are taken into account to describe the act of receiving information that coincides with your past media usage. Imagine your besties are now a bunch of robots, agreeing with everything you say and suggesting new ideas that relate to what you’ve previously said. Oh, and it’s still your birthday. What a comfortable, weird little bubble. In the real world, if you generally subscribe to conservative accounts, the bubble keeps you in a conservative online space. The sense of autonomy begins to fade.What about turning on the news? This is where geography plays a bigger role (see; World Press Freedom Index). In many places, the top news agencies are independent bodies, free of censorship and considered to be transparent with their audiences. However, even in countries where there is a seemingly democratic media landscape, you come across problems such as polarization and the branding of news events. Take the United States for example, which is ranked 44th on the list. 2016 saw news platforms that dug their heels into certain narratives and refused to break outside of their mold. On opposite sides of the political spectrum, major news outlets lost sight of objectivity and would take on stances for the sake of disagreeing with the other side. The same has happened worldwide. The debate of objectivity in journalism is a tale as old as time, but the past five years alone showed us that we have to be extremely careful when subscribing to only one news platform.
Here’s the thing. The curation of news is not all bad. I know, I know, I just listed a million and one reasons why it is. But, the reality is that in today’s climate, citizens have more journalistic power than ever. People are exposed to information that they may not normally have come across, because of rapid sharing and instant connectivity. Universal access to news sources is more available now than ever in history. Higher competition in the media landscape leads to platforms improving and optimizing their methods (or so we hope). With all this in mind, be aware of the double-edged sword. Be aware of the robot besties that only ever agree with you. With polarized platforms, echo chambers, and filter bubbles in mind, go into the world with an open mind and make sure to check your sources.
Read more: Is Social Media Designed to Harm Us?