Beware of Social Media Bubbles

Since its inception, social media has changed how we learn, act and communicate as a society. With those changes, we’ve uncovered both benefits and pitfalls – and sometimes they’re one in the same.

In his farewell address Tuesday night, President Barack Obama called out one major example of those pitfalls: our personally tailored social media bubbles. Specifically, he warned us of its effect on democracy:

“For too many of us, it’s become safer to retreat into our own bubbles, whether in our neighborhoods or on college campuses, or places of worship, or especially our social media feeds, surrounded by people who look like us and share the same political outlook and never challenge our assumptions.”

As a result of this, he believes:

“We become so secure in our bubbles that we accept only information, whether true or not, that fits our opinions, instead of basing our opinions on the evidence that’s out there.”

Here is where the benefits and pitfalls of our social media bubbles become one in the same. On one hand, it’s nice to be able to curate a feed that includes your social circle, likes, interests, beliefs – after all, it’s specifically for you. However, this benefit morphs into a major pitfall when our social bubble becomes so impermeable that we are unreachable.

With the ability to tailor content to our tastes, amplified by the power of algorithms, our social media bubbles have become so specific and narrow that we are never forced to step outside of them and consider the alternative. We automatically filter out anything that doesn’t meet our current beliefs, opinions or tastes…all because we can.

Rather than consider alternatives or weigh evidence against our opinions, we silence them. We stick to our social bubbles, readily accepting anything it presents as legitimate, simply because it fits a specific criteria. This is an especially alarming practice because it allows our social bubbles to act as breeding ground for fake news to grow and perpetuate.

President Obama suggested that the very form of communication that our social bubbles have largely replaced, face-to-face communication, is critical to ensuring we keep learning, growing and moving forward as individuals and as a society.

We all have to work to make sure we don’t let social media and our personal digital bubbles threaten our ability to learn and empathize. This ever-changing communication platform was built on interconnectivity, and we should use it to foster understanding and to move our society forward.

In addition to face-to-face communication, here are a few tips for getting outside your social media bubble: 

  • Follow people, organizations and media outlets that don’t necessarily jive with your way of thinking. This step might not get you to completely change your beliefs, but you’ll at least be exposed to new ideas and perspectives. 
  • Try switching your Facebook feed from “Top Sories” to “Most Recent.” Top Stories is a feed created by Facebook’s algorithms, designed to show you only what they think you are interested in and want to see  so posts from online friends with opposing viewpoints might not show up on your timeline.
  • Read beyond the headline and verify information before you share it  you want to avoid contributing to the fake news epidemic. 
  • If someone posts something you disagree with, don’t immediately dismiss their ideas or unfollow them. Start a constructive conversation and don’t be afraid to ask questions. 

Social media is a powerful tool and can be used to kickstart conversations about important issues. At JT, we’ve seen it firsthand in our work – from developing an online community that elevated the voices of individuals impacted by metastatic breast cancer, to positioning the American Medical Association (AMA) as the go-to-source for information during the national healthcare reform debate. If we want to continue fostering meaningful conversations, we must all commit to using these tools thoughtfully and remain open.