Facebook’s Planned Echo-Chambers May Divide Social Structures
Why Facebook’s announced plans to strengthen groups poses a danger to society
The growing phenomenon of polarization in the world’s societies has caused many a sleepless night for politicians and citizens alike. The US presidential election last November and the Brexit vote in the UK, paired with smaller but nonetheless worrisome elections in Austria, Italy, the Netherlands and France earlier this year, have demonstrated a widening gap between social groups within heretofore relatively cohesive societies.
The existence of opposition parties is nothing new in politics. What appears to be new is the movement from professional opposition to popular aversion. A demonizing of “the other side“ has set in that leaves sociologists and psychologists wondering how this could have happened so quickly. Case in point: in Germany, the foundation of the anti-islamist group PEGIDA, for which support grew exponentially in 2014, is coupled with the growth of the so-called right wing AFD (Alternative for Germany) political party. This party grew nationwide from a 2% support in April 2013 to 12% in January 2016, even with election results later that year at 21% in some German states. At the same time, the growth in support for the left wing parties “Die Grünen” (The Greens) and “Die Linke” (The Left) took an unprecedented leap in several German states. The riots at the recent G-20 Summit in Hamburg from left extremists have caused an outrage and serious reflection on consequences. A catalyst for the mutation from simple opposition to verbal and violent polarization appears to be social media.
Social media are connectors. Facebook’s longtime motto, “Connect the World,“ is facing the reality that the world is still divided, perhaps more so than ever. And as newspaper subscriptions and association membership are at an all-time low, social media usage has run rampant in households around the world.
How could this be when the world is better connected than ever? Everyone now has the opportunity to choose with whom to communicate and from what sources to take information. The plethora of social media groups are not in the majority of cases open and constructive forums. They rather simulate echo-chambers, where everyone can hear and read what they hope to hear and read. This has even reached the reality of television networks like Fox News and CNN, where editorial tendencies have been idealized to present facts in the slant they wish their viewers to adopt.
Facebook announced in June that they hope to increase the user number for Groups from the current 100 million to 1 billion in the next few years. Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook Inc, hopes to build more robust communities offline. In an interview he said, “Meaningful groups transcend online… (we want) to bring communities and sub-communities closer together.“ This is a noble goal, yet building more online groups has never posed a solution.
One of the greatest challenges facing Facebook’s intention is that people freely choose which groups they wish to belong to. And the heavy inertia behind social media addiction is not easy to break. For example, the rise in Islamist extremism is widely known to have been enabled by the social media. The so-called Islamic State has used the cyber world as their second battleground for years. To believe that by connecting people online the iron curtain between leftists and right-wing extremists will fall is unfounded. To believe in the good will of humanity is essential, but naive if not paired with the realization of the existence of myriads of information channels catering to radicalize passive minds.
More control and censorship is not the solution. But more chatrooms and online communities will also not curb current developments. “Nothing beats personal meetings,“ admitted Zuckerberg. The challenge will be to move people towards heterogeneous encounters that enable mutual understanding and peaceful co-existence.