I recently defriended someone on Facebook. I know, such a modern drama. I had just had enough of my news feed being disrupted with his right wing views on the world, which seemed so out of line with my own. But by casting him digitally aside, I was complicit in that world becoming instantly smaller.
So much of what we understand is informed by social media. We naturally gravitate to people who share our ideals in both the real world and online, but social media adds an additional layer of selection, compounded by the hours we spend there. The mystical algorithms behind Facebook, for example, curate our perspective to ensure we get to see more of what appeals to our own tastes. It filters out the unfamiliar and we don't get to experience what is discussed by the 'other half'.
The Brexit vote (sorry to poke the nest) came as a total shock to me and most of those I know. A couple of colleagues outwardly cried in consternation on 24th June, and we were all left wondering who these people are that have made what I still believe to be a fundamental and devastating error.
The Brexiters were not on my Facebook wall or Twitter feed, they weren't expressing their passion through my Instagram. In fact, I could not only not see the Brexiters but the strength of the 'filter bubble' on some social sites meant I couldn't even find them.
A friend wrote on Facebook shortly before the referendum, 'Can everyone stop talking about this bloody vote - we all think the same way anyway.' It was a fair point; if we don't know people with different views then we are endlessly shouting at each other in agreement, and sharing stories that suggest we are on the ascendency, when we should be engaging with the opposition. The Brexiters were there - we just couldn't reach them, nor they us.
Social media is now 'the media' for many people. As a communications consultant and writer, observing and acting on the way this is changing the way we create and digest 'news' is one of the fascinations of the job. Many traditional news organisations are responding with more content designed around its ability to drive clicks through social channels than purely to deliver insight.
This shareable news appeals to our passions. The pro-Brexit camp took this to a new level, deciding early on in their campaign that facts would not win their cause and adopted an 'American style' emotional approach. Some of this output had a blatant disregard for facts but through social news it is easier than ever to publish false information, which is quickly shared and left unattested.
So what can be done? Last month, I moved from London to Amsterdam (coincidental timing, not a reactionary Brentry), to the most diverse city in the world where 180 different nationalities live together. To live here is to live with two fingers permanently stuck up to Farrage. To a certain extent even here I am in a bubble though as we have all been drawn here by a shared appreciation for liberal values and by the welcome the city offers people from different backgrounds. However, everyday there is an opportunity to engage with people with experiences far removed from my own.
In my Dutch language class there are 12 of us from 12 countries. In the past fortnight I have been to the Pride parade with classmates, a Brazilian barbecue, drank vodka with a Polish friend, debated revolution with a Turkish banker and discussed business start-ups with a Slovenian wine merchant.
It doesn't mean I understand the other half necessarily but I have at least broadened my world view. I know that to get past the logarithms though I need to do more. Here's some of the ways I intend to do it in my own five-point-bubble-popping-plan:
- broaden my social circle to get a more diverse perspective
- switch up the media I read and if I disagree, hold them to account
- read comment articles by writers who don't just express my own views better than I can
- hold more conversations in the real world with people I wouldn't normally strike up a chat with
- and even reFacebook-friend (if that's a term) my old rightish wing acquaintance (if he'll have me)
Today, I was told about an inscription at the entrance to the old town hall of Gouda, another Dutch city 60km from here. It was carved nearly 500 years ago during another dark period in Europe's history and today stands as a reminder of the essence of democracy. It translates as 'Always listen to the other side'. Indeed, it is in listening to others and debating fairly that we will get closer to the elusive truth and better understand our world.