A new study by Oxford University has found that despite what you might think, social media is not the “echo chamber” that you might think it is.
Taking a randomised sample of 2000 people in the UK, the research found that rather than technology narrowing people’s views, it was providing the vast majority of us with a means to expand our knowledge.
Dr Grant Blank, research fellow at the Oxford Internet Institute and co-author of the study, said: “Whatever the causes of political polarisation today, it is not social media or the internet.
“If anything, most people use the internet to broaden their media horizons. We found evidence that people actively look to confirm the information that they read online, in a multitude of ways.
“They mainly do this by using a search engine to find offline media and validate political information. In the process they often encounter opinions that differ from their own and as a result whether they stumbled across the content passively or use their own initiative to search for answers while double checking their ‘facts’, some changed their own opinion on certain issues.”
The study also found that those with a greater interest in politics were less likely to be in an echo chamber, as they sought to consume all the political media content they could access – and as a result had a “diverse media diet” spanning different views and opinions.
Co-author of the study Dr Elizabeth Dubois, assistant professor at the University of Ottawa, said only a small section of the population could be considered to be at risk of sitting in online echo chambers.
“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,” she said.
“However, because of their lack of political engagement, their opinions are less formative and their influence on others is likely to be comparatively small.”
One of the problems with the “echo chamber” theory, suggests the research, is that many of the studies have only taken one single platform into account.
“Measuring exposure to conflicting ideas on a single platform or medium does not account for the ways in which individuals collect information across the entire media environment.” write the authors.
“For example, someone might learn about an issue on Facebook which they fact-check using search. We argue that to understand whether a person is in an echo chamber, it is important to consider how they interact with their entire media environment.”
Previous studies have expressed concerns that the algorithms used on social media sites such as Facebook, which serve users content based on previous behaviour, can fuel the creation of echo chambers.
But last month, Facebook announced plans to change the structure of its news feed to prioritise content from family and friends rather than publishers in an attempt to create more “meaningful” interactions between users.