The social media bubble – breeding intolerance and incomprehension?

Can you believe the results of the Brexit referendum? Well, judging from social media lots of people can’t. They are completely mystified – after all, everyone they interact with – in person and more so on social media – would never dream of voting any way other than the way they did. But the results didn’t go their way.

Why was it such a surprise? I’m not even going to touch on the politics but the issue that concerns me is the fact that so many people now exist in a world – a bubble – comprising only of people who share their own views and interests to an extent they have almost no awareness of what anyone else is thinking.

You’re either for me or against me

Humans have always had a very strong tendency to favour people like them while being circumspect of those deemed not like them. No doubt it is part of an evolutionary trait where we value safety in familiarity and behavioural scientists can cite study after study that people are, all other things being equal, better persuaded by someone their age, sex, race, size, background and so on. We are even more likely to respond favourably to someone with our own name. But it is also the very essence of tribalism – the often bitter, spiteful and even hateful tendency to find ways to separate the world into ‘those like us’ and ‘those against us’.

It’s always a delicate balancing act but now social media seems to be causing what I fear is a dangerous tipping point. Social media is so successful and compelling, I would suggest, precisely because it enables us to share more time interacting with people more like us. Whether friends, family or complete strangers around a shared passion or interest, it feeds the need to share with like minds perfectly and compellingly.

But there is a downside. The more time we spend interacting with people like us, people who share our own values and think like us, the less we are exposed to different perspectives and viewpoints. And I’m not sure that’s very healthy.

And the binary remain or leave nature of the Brexit vote played perfectly into this model of two tribes fundamentally opposed to each other.

When two tribes go to war

A post, ironically, on social media summed up the severity of the situation perfectly in the wake of the vote and subsequent dismay from one side at the result:

Heartfelt and very insightful comments from Tom Steinberg which I hope are heard by those with the power to make changes.

Love thy neighbour not just  thy Facebook friends

But perhaps this is something for all of us to become more mindful of. I’m not a believer, but isn’t the biblical call for us to ‘love thy neighbour’ intended to apply the brakes to exactly this kind of social division? It surely doesn’t mean love just the people like you or whom you like, it means reach out to the people you are next to, whatever their creed, colour or beliefs. Understand them, empathise with them, care for them.

It’s a tall order, because social media feeds off the very tendency to be tribal, but if it could find ways of bridging divisions as well as enabling them, it would be a very welcome development. We already know Facebook is using human input alongside its algorithms to curate news feeds, so just maybe they can find a clever way of keeping us more aware of what’s beyond the group-think of those we’re naturally most attracted to because they already mirror much of ourselves in the first place.