[Note on the author: Elma Jenkins works in project support for the RHEA Group. Elma is currently a student on the City, University of London Writing for Business short course which started in May 2018. She wrote this blog as part of a homework/in-class exercise on that course.]
Society is addicted to new media – Google, newsfeeds, tweets and targeted ads – which have been widely blamed for creating more dividing lines in society. Certainly they have brought the psychology of human decision making into politics. No doubt there are groups out there who are being paid to explore this realm. But can new media really manipulate, or is it just clever PR?
More people are sharing their data online than ever before, and the growth is projected to continue into 2020 (Statista, 2017):
Increasingly local knowledge is being digitized, with a proliferation of data portals such as Wikipedia; digital literature collections such as Project Gutenberg; crowd sourcing sites such as Quora; and open data sites such as data.gov.uk. They show a trend towards digitization in government and society but the general public has very little understanding as to how and what gets digitized and, crucially, who decides. A lot of what gets put online is not really useful: it can even be outright misleading. The battle for our attention online has only just begun.
An emerging literature is unpicking how we can be manipulated by new media sources and how we must stay vigilant to overcome them. Tech writers such as Eli Pariser, the founder of Avaaz and Upworthy, have picked up on a modern phenomenon they are calling the online echo chamber, and are blaming it for everything from the rise of the far right to youth disengagement; whilst marketing and PR companies have cleverly picked up on it as a new service to provide.
Noreena Hertz’s book Eyes Wide Open is a recent addition to the literature which uses psychological and sociological approaches to study how we can be manipulated online. This includes traditional research tools to identify truth in online claims such as: identifying sample size and selection (is a group self-selective or truly random); how variables have been quantified (definitions and ranges of data); and basic checks for reliability/validity such as triangulation (have your data results been identified in other studies or do they contain any bias). These traditional methods are however becoming harder to apply amid the proliferation of algorithms and the data deluge online, which are making it increasingly difficult to find sources or to even identify your own bias because biases are increasingly being applied for you, without your knowledge.
The echo chamber
Hertz also discusses the psychological reasons why we seek out similar views so we need to see ourselves as part of these online changes. As digital users we need to constantly think about how we can go beyond our own tunnel vision. Much like an addiction which controls those affected by it, we need to see beyond our own desires and psychological rewards.
Given these needs and tendencies, how is an online echo chamber actually built? The tactics used vary between online media sources. The most common identifier is the algorithm; a computer generated categorization of what we ‘like’ online in order to help direct us to more tailored viewings. Suffice to say that there are many failures here: for one thing computers are notoriously bad at picking up sarcasm. Then there is the world of paid advertising and click-bait, the sole purpose of which is to generate revenue from our web browsing. Bots and fake news sites also deserve a mention as the really manipulative element in the chamber, which spread extreme views in an attempt to generate misinformation and confusion.
Popularity ratings have also come under fire as they use our desire to hear self-affirming news and follow perceived leaders. The worry is that some of these tactics are now being used in areas which we traditionally perceive as neutral. We hear a lot about tailored advertising and Facebook news feeds but mainstream news sites, search engines and recommendation sites are at it as well. After reading about the chap who created a top-rated restaurant on Trip Adviser only to uncover later that he hadn’t served a single meal in his slightly run down garden shed, I will never trust a peer reviewing site again!
But hasn’t our data was always been manipulated? Even before the digital revolution information was withheld, misrepresented or abused. One example is the financial crash in 2008 which was exacerbated by rating agencies purposely hiding bad loans inside top-rated mortgage packages in order to push up profits while the real incomes of borrowers were ignored or simply lied about. This kind of manipulation of statistics happened in the backrooms of estate agents and investment banks but senior executives, government officials, investors and homebuyers should have paid more attention to what was going on.
Those who argue that the echo chamber has caused a shift to the political right are eager to see an increase in early education on online sources and more checks and balances online. This is particularly when it comes to election news and views. There are however some studies which suggest that individuals are still exposed to a wide variety of viewpoints online. Dr Elizabeth Dubois at the University of Ottawa conducted a study of political reading and found only a small section of the population to be at risk of sitting in an online echo chamber:
Our results show that most people are not in a political echo chamber. The people at risk are those who depend on only a single medium for political news and who are not politically interested: about 8% of the population.
But these studies are still in their infancy and do recognize they need more validity and reliability.
So, do we need to lift the lid on the PR of online manipulation? For some there are positives which outweigh the negatives of online communications. Eli Pariser highlights the positives of new digital media, which he believes can be a positive cause for change by making real world issues more accessible online, creating more group action and reaching new audiences. Pariser therefore advocates a gentle ‘echo chamber’ approach to solving social problems. According to this argument, what is happening online is a reflection of own capacity to broaden our understanding and to concisely seek out new solutions.
If we become conscious that these online echo chambers do exist, we may well see the end of the online monoliths. If phrases such as ‘Just Google it’ start getting replaced with solid online fact checking, individuals will be able to challenge the creep of marketing into our digital interactions. Currently, however, knowledge and information can be manipulated by big data in ways not accessible by most concerned citizens. It is our responsibility to recognise for ourselves when we are stepping into one of these dangerous silos.
Appelbaum, Binyamin: February 2015. New York Times. How mortgage fraud made the financial crisis worse. New York Times.
Hertz, Noreena: 2013. Eyes wide open. William Collins.
Pariser, Eli: March 2011. Beware online filter bubbles. TED Talks.
Robson, David: April 2018. The myth of the online echo chamber. BBC.
Tamblyn, Thomas: February 2018. Social Media And The Internet Are Not Creating ‘Echo Chambers’, Claims Study. Huffington Post.