The acoustics of social media

Margetts, H. (2017). Political behaviour and the acoustics of social media. Nature Human Behaviour, 1(4), s41562-017.

I’ve tended towards acoustic metaphors when making sense of social media since finding inspiration in a remark by David Beer about the challenge of being heard above the din on social media. These platforms are cacophonous, as many voices struggle for attention in forums which have been structured hierarchically around visibility and popularity. So this paper’s focus on acoustics immediately drew my attention. Margetts notes that “around 128 million people across the United States generated 8.8 billion likes, posts, comments and shares related to the election on Facebook alone” and “US Twitter users can even witness the development of policy as it is formed or contested, given the new president’s enthusiasm for this media platform”. Not only is there much material than ever to encounter, much of it is social information about what other people are thinking and doing. Much of this has obvious political ramifications, with the internal architecture of platforms shaping the flow of social information around networks:

On any screen we can see in real time how many other people, or how many of our friends, have liked, shared, viewed or searched for an item, and can often gauge which items are becoming popular (‘trending’) or how close a campaign or fund-raising initiative is to meeting a target.

This social information includes ‘signals of viability’ in which incipient mobilisations gather steam (or fail to) based on how widespread their potential support is seen to be. Claims about echo chambers and filter bubbles are fundamentally theories about social information circulating in closed circuits, such that “inhabitants of these ideologically narrow environments are vulnerable to distorted versions of events or fake news, which bounce around the chamber and become regarded as the truth”. In this sense, argues Margetts, the acoustics of social media are held to be responsible for political populism, as it is claimed that echo chamber effects drive polarisation by dragging people to ever more extreme positions on either side of a dichotomy.

However these claims need to be carefully considered. The fact that “our digital networks are so much larger and more heterogeneous than anything we’ve had before” means that one could easily argue the real echo chamber would be someone who reads the same daily newspaper, without exposure to any other sources of social information. Are digital echo chambers just reproducing those which already existed offline, in a way driven by homophily effects which predate social media? A range of studies have suggested the heterogeneity of online networks means that users receive news from more sources than non-users, with deliberate choice playing more of a role than algorithms in shutting down information flow.

As Margetts puts it, this “highlights the wide spectrum between a sealed echo chamber and random news content, just as similar buildings can vary widely in their acoustic effects”. There is great potential in experimental methods for investigating these issues, with every platform other than Twitter being closed to researchers unless they can secure the explicit cooperation of the firm. This has contributed to a situation in which “Speculation over the existence of echo chambers, and their interaction with other pathologies of social media such as fake news, vastly outpaces any experimental studies of their existence”.

This is a huge problem because many of the pressing issues of our time would require access to such data. The link between social science and social problems risks being broken by the opacity of corporate platforms. Margetts ends with by reflection on the “need for institutional catch-up” when social media is barely a decade old.

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