The social media revolution combined with the growth of mobile technology means that we can now all access a constant stream of information, pretty much anywhere, any time of day.
Details of news stories, from which celebrity is having marital problems to how states are oppressing their citizens, can be exposed and virally spread around the world in minutes.
A few years ago, social media had promised to create a more open and transparent society. But has this really happened?
Personally, I feel I use social media as much as any other nosy working mum in her mid-thirties. I find time to check my preferred feeds –Twitter and Facebook – multiple times a day; they are the first thing I check when I wake up in the morning and the last thing I check before I go to sleep at night.
In doing so, I feel I gain a snapshot of the important and popular issues and views of the day.
I admit I gasped in shock when the results of the UK’s EU referendum and the US elections were announced last year. And, for the most part, I was joined by my friends and social media connections – most of whom couldn’t hide their disdain on their own social media feeds.
I, like them, had been repeatedly warned via social media of the economic disaster that would befall the UK if it chose to leave the EU. A few months later, I was then told Donald Trump was nothing short of the devil incarnate – but also that his election to US president was about as likely as a chocolate fireguard doing its job.
Of course, it is no secret that your personal social media feeds don’t provide you with everything that is posted. That simply wouldn’t be possible given the amount of information uploaded each day. Instead, social media companies make decisions based on what you like and view, as well as the activity of your friends and digital acquaintances.
The result is that you and your social media connections will often have similar feeds.
Vignesh Yoganathan, senior lecturer and programme leader for MSc in Digital Marketing at Northumbria University, likens this effect to “birds flocking together”.
He says: “We tend to connect with people who think like we do and seldom with people with opposing points of view. To do so often provides us with an unpleasant experience.
“We create our own bubbles of like-minded people and evidence shows we rarely cross those boundaries.”
It can therefore be argued that instead of democratising information, social media has actually managed to pigeonhole our views so much that we no longer appreciate, or even know, what people unlike ourselves think.
Vignesh goes on to reveal that research also shows impressions on social media can greatly influence our immediate behaviours – something that is referred to as ‘real time sentiment analysis’.
He cites the recent example in the US presidential campaign where reports that Hillary Clinton was to be investigated by the FBI (a claim the FBI rejected) just days before election day seemingly made an impact on the US electorate’s decision-making process.
We can only guess about whether the result would have been different had the revelations of Donald Trump’s highly derogatory comments towards women on a radio show in 2005 come out closer to election day.
Similarly, Vignesh talks about research undertaken by academics at Royal Holloway University during the Prime Ministerial debates in 2010.
He explains: “The team asked a group of people to watch the debate while simultaneously giving one half of the group access to a feed that favoured Gordon Brown’s performance, while the other half were given a feed that favoured Nick Clegg.”
Afterwards, Vignesh explains, the group were asked who they would vote for at that moment and the resulting poll showed that most aligned with the opinions that they had been subjected to on their doctored social media feeds.”
So, should the major social media companies take more responsibility for providing more balanced and credible information to its consumers?
“There is a good argument for the major social media companies to make sure that consumers of their information get a balanced view,” says Vignesh.
“Companies such as Facebook – particularly in light of the US election result – are now coming under more pressure to tackle the spread of false information.
In a blog post from November 19, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg stated that the company takes “misinformation seriously” and outlined some of the projects already underway in this area, including stronger technical systems to detect false information, easier reporting tools, more warnings and third party verification.
Four students from Princeton University have recently developed a browser plug-in to analyse social media news feeds, which attracted media attention from around the world.
However, Vignesh warns that restricting information on social media has its downsides, too.
“The trouble is, how do you judge what is right, what is wrong and what is fit for consumption?
“Social media was initially created to share information about yourself – where you are on holiday, or what you did at the weekend, etc. Now, it’s transitioning into a new media source. All media has to come from a certain perspective, so if Facebook starts saying what’s true and what’s not, what’s right and what’s wrong, it’s effectively becoming similar to traditional news channels such as the BBC.”
With no easy answer, this argument is set to rage on for the social media companies as well as traditional media, politicians, business and the wider global community.
In the meantime, 2016 may have taught us a lesson: currently, social media can’t provide users with a balanced point of view. Perhaps we must all take some responsibility in trying to gauge other people’s opinions, even if we don’t agree with them.
If we don’t look outside our own social media bubbles, I predict yet more audible gasps on the horizon in 2017.