Having previously considered social media marketing as a potential career path for myself, I had once sworn myself to the world of marketing analytics until I realised I was socially conditioning myself into discourse-vacuum, more commonly known as an ‘echo chamber’. Drawing from personal reflections towards social media and concurrently responding to the blog post Social media makes people think their opinions matter too much, this blog post reflects on the echo-chamber effect of social media and argues for ‘platform socialism’ as an alternative to the increasingly negative opinions surrounding social media.
Illustrations depicting what I imagine the social media echo-chamber and ‘group think’ to look like when visualised.
Background and Social Context
Saturated as ever with never-ending content and information circulation, navigating the digital has become increasingly dangerous and difficult. Whilst it seems apparent that practices such as data collection and preferences tracking on social media aim only to improve our experiences of these platforms, lived experiences stray only a short corner from surveillance tracking and data privacy violations and visible tensions between surveillance capitalism and group polarisation can be evidenced on social media platforms.
Surveillance capitalism refers to a market-driven process based on the collection and commodification of personal data facilitated through mass surveillance of the internet. Whilst visible implications of surveillance capitalism are seemingly limited to that of personalised advertisements and preference tracking, the monopolisation of social media platforms by companies in question leads to greater concerns which are often ‘filtered out’ of consumers’ vision by the echo-chamber effect of social media and the reproduction of ‘group think’.
Defined as an environment “in which the opinion, political leaning, or belief of users about a topic gets reinforced due to repeated interactions with peers or sources having similar tendencies and attitudes,” social media platforms are often held in comparison with echo-chambers (Cinelli, 2021). Whilst it may not appear at all evident, social media platforms are prime environments for limiting the exposure of a given user to certain experiences and perspectives. In combination with the human tendency to prefer information coinciding with our own worldviews and to ignore dissenting information, the formation of groups of like-minded users renders us susceptible to group polarisation around shared narratives (Cinelli, 2021). Threatening both diversity in opinion and freedom of thought, the echo-chamber effect of social media further increases the likelihood of misinformation spreading.
Reproduction of ‘Group Think’
Going beyond the social echo-chamber effect where a shared narrative is reinforced within a distinct group of individuals, the reproduction of ‘group think’ refers to a “psychological phenomenon which occurs within a group of people when the desire for harmony and conformity in the group results in dysfunctional decision making.” In an attempt to minimise conflict, group members tend to actively suppress dissenting viewpoints and consequently resulting in “blinkered and single-minded decision making.” Such a phenomenon not only normalises the echo-chamber effect but further retrenches inequalities and long-term algorithmic biases within social media platform environments.
In addition to acknowledging the harmful potential of social media platform environments, the importance of ‘diversity’ in any virtual environment must also be recognised. ‘Diversity’ is not only important for recognising echo chambers or ‘group think’ behaviour from the onset but diversity in experience, perception, and background further provides insight into knowledge and perspectives that may not have existed, or that you may not have been aware of before.
Whilst it seems convincing to demand platform accountability, it’s perhaps naïve to trust social media platforms to hold our best interests at heart as these companies are “structurally conditioned to respond to competitive market pressures by adapting its strategies to maintain its dominance.” Driven by capitalist incentives and tending to prioritise growth engagement over moral-ethical concerns, any constructive changes to the social media platform environment surfaces not from solutions devised by those situated within these organisations but from alternatives to social ownership, common interests and solidarity.
Driven by the aims of creating an alternative ownership model, Muldoon argues for the adoption and practice of ‘platform socialism’, where individuals “reclaim collective self-determination through new forms of participatory and decentralised governance that ensure we no longer put profits over human needs.” Highlighting the importance of platform design in developing technologies that can achieve higher degrees of transparency and are capable of human oversight, Muldoon calls for the recoupling of digital ownership with user agency. ‘Platform socialism’ focuses not only on “how we can foster citizen’s active participation in the design and governance of digital platforms” but the decentralisation and redistribution of conventional private power in the digital sphere to diverse communities and individuals.
Reflecting similar sympathies to wider calls for digital self-determination, both struggles sought after a series of technologies and regulations that allow a user to control every aspect of their relationship to the online world. Whether it be the control over what data is available about them online and under what terms or the control over your social media feed, the reinstatement of agency on the individual away from technological monopolies is grounded in a “long-term counter-hegemonic project for challenging capitalist control over technology.”
Webber, Emily. 11 February 2017. “Avoiding groupthink and echo chambers: diversity and the multidisciplinary team – a short talk.” https://emilywebber.co.uk/avoiding-groupthink-echo-chambers-diversity-multidisciplinary-team-short-talk/ (Accessed 01 December 2021)
Holloway, Donell. 24 June 2019. Explainer: what is surveillance capitalism and how does it shape our economy? https://theconversation.com/explainer-what-is-surveillance-capitalism-and-how-does-it-shape-our-economy-119158 (Accessed 18 December 2021)
Cinelli, Matteo. et al. 02 March 2021. The echo chamber effect on social media. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Mar 2021, 118 (9) e2023301118; https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.2023301118 (Accessed 01 December 2021)
Muldoon, James. 12 October 2021. “Regulating BigTech is not enough. We need platform socialism.” https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/regulating-big-tech-is-not-enough-we-need-platform-socialism/ (Accessed 17 October 2021)
The Art Angle. 14 October 2021. “5 Technologies That Will Transform The Art World by 2030.” https://open.spotify.com/episode/7yYT3cenua2r3fPq422s9h?si=3ca5109a4b4c4aa5 (Accessed 16 October 2021)