Just in case you weren't aware, sophisticated algorithms govern what you see online. Facebook only shows you the views of people who think like you. LinkedIn shows you posts that people like you like, and Twitter suggests you follow people who post things like you post. We are becoming increasingly segregated into ‘tribes’ all saying what we want to hear to people who want to hear it.
Before you stop reading, I promise this isn't yet another rant on the rights and wrongs of the so-called echo chamber. Right, wrong or indifferent, it’s here: we need to think about how we, as citizens and as journalists, operate within it.
Nothing is self-contained, and at the edges of the chamber you can get a true idea of what's going on out there. I live in Brighton, where we are all liberal hippies who discuss politics over vegan burritos and craft ale, but I grew up in a part of north London where opinions tend to err on the side of UKIP. My Facebook declaration of undying love for Caroline Lucas is just as likely to annoy my former school pals as their “I’m not racist but…” comments annoy me. But what should both sides of the debate do when they they come (virtually) face-to-face?
The first option, of course, is to argue your point. If someone has posted something you know not to be true, find the evidence and rebuff. This is my usual standpoint, but it has led to someone telling me they didn’t need statistics because they had eyes (it’s hard to know what to say to that) and a family member defriending me altogether. That can get awkward.
Of course, that’s the other option. If you see something you don’t agree with, unfollow, unfriend. I have to admit I have taken that route at times, but it can only serve to divide us more. If we agree the ‘echo chamber’ is bad for debate, bad for democracy, then voluntarily segregating ourselves further is no way to address the problem.
Whatever your political colours, there’s no arguing that the route to an informed electorate, in which people make decisions based on fact, is intelligent debate. For that, we need responsible, quality journalism.
The In The Thick of It-style spin we have been subjected to for the last decade or so has led to a mistrust of the mainstream media as the news cycle is played like a fiddle by its PR conductors. We have got so used to this way of doing things that a commentator on Newsnight described Corbyn’s method of explaining policies then asking if people liked them as “unusual”.
But this new way of sharing information, usually in the form of inaccurate memes or unbalanced opinion pieces, does not aide debate any more than spin. The reason journalists are trained is so they know the law, they know what they can and can’t, and should and shouldn’t, say.
Quality journalism can lead us out the echo chamber
The UK’s version of ‘fake news’ is misinformation, and it’s damaging. Checking sources, not repeating lies and telling both sides of the story are the foundations of quality journalism that democracy needs. That’s what we need to get back to, and by doing so, win back the trust of public. If we don’t, I am worried we may very well be stuck in here, talking to ourselves, forever. Or worse.