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  • Edward James Bass

Are Platforms the New Social Media Bubbles?

Updated: Jan 25, 2021

That algorithms keep large parts of the world secure within their own ideological groups isn’t a new concept, but the nature of this division appears to be evolving…

Over the past five years the concept of ‘social media bubbles’ has become widely understood by just about everyone - and due to some very divisive political and social issues it has also been shown to be more than just mere theory.

Initially this by-product of social platforms algorithms worked well for the platforms themselves as it ensured audiences stayed engaged and thus spent more time on the platform, which in an ‘attention economy’ translated to more user value. Eventually it became a real bane for almost everyone else.

By 2016 the cracks in this system were all too apparent as both sides of political and ideological divides suddenly became shocked by the opposing sides perspective, and in some cases even their existence. Hardly an outcome you’d expect in a digital, connected world - but this happened, nonetheless.

Five years on though it seems this may not be a problem for too much longer, although this doesn’t mean that this is due to more unity, common ground and mutual understanding….

Bursting the bubbles?

Whilst considering this subject recently I opted to take a look at how different groups interacted with key social issues and what set them apart in terms of their traditional media and social media behaviours.

For a topic to analyse I chose The Paris Agreement, a key international treaty covering Climate Change which Donald Trump controversially chose to withdraw the United States from in 2017 - but which his successor Joe Biden has pledged to immediately re-instate.

Using social data tool Audiense I analysed the #parisagreement hashtag and immediately noticed that three key audience groups were most actively sharing this and discussing the subject on social media:

It is hard to ignore that the U.S is divided right now, and of course we’d expect to see this issue discussed on both sides – however what was most surprising is that groups most likely to oppose the re-joining of the Paris agreement saw a larger combined audience share than the environmentally minded segment. Those against made up nearly two thirds here and I expect what we are seeing is as a result of recent negative reaction from these groups to the reversal of policy.

While the preference of traditional media sources isn’t too much of a surprise (though it is interesting to see the mix of well established and emerging media entities favoured by the right-wing audience) but the diversity of social media platforms here is something to be mindful of.

Whilst Reddit is a platform shared by both the Young Trump supporters and Environmentally Minded the fragmented nature of the platform means that these two groups are unlikely to interact too often since it is divided into separate communities of interest, as demonstrated by the examples above.

Further analysis of conversation around #Immigration also indicated that the audience segments identified were reacting to recent news and events, with a Democratic party more lenient in this area coming into power generating a lot of positive conversation from their supporters - and thus more visibly active audiences.

For traditional media there was yet again distinct separation in the channels favoured by each side of the political spectrum (as well as some difference between male and female Democrat preferences) but more possibility of potential common ground for discussion on Facebook and Twitter - although I have to wonder if in time these audiences will migrate to platforms with users who share their ideology too.

The New Divide

Unlike most traditional media platforms, social media offers the option of direct engagement and debate with those of opposing viewpoints, however user anonymity, the active spreading of false and inflammatory information, politically weaponised trolls and automated bots have made that increasingly difficult over time. This is mostly due to the fact that the fires were already burning brightly before the social platforms themselves thought to start putting them out.

Since the risk here is that different audiences opt to just move to platforms which echo their ideologies the question has to be asked – is the 80’s dream of an internet which can facilitate open and honest debate essentially dead and done? And if so – what were the real causes of this?

As I write this the social media app ‘Parler’ is seeing a lot of media attention due to the fact it has been rejected by a number of large technology companies and subsequently put on a hiatus. Parler is known for being a ‘free speech’ social media platform which is home to many vocal right-wing thinkers, essentially it is a dedicated platform for them.

My guess is that we will see more examples of platforms which represent ideological viewpoints spring up in the near future, echoing the existing divisions across traditional media but even less likely to inspire balanced and even debate or moderate thinking. You can probably guess from the tone of this article that I don’t find that future a healthy one in a world where many of our key systems require co-operation regardless of ideological viewpoint.

If this trend continues then the resulting balkanisation of digital communities likely isn’t going to lead to better social cohesion – perhaps the world needs a new platform which can somehow accommodate everyone?

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