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Facebook, an echo chamber which warps our world

Those who have been raising alarms about Facebook are right: Almost every minute that we spend on our smartphones, tablets and laptops, thumbing through favourite websites and scrolling through personalised feeds, we're pointed towards foregone conclusions. We're pressured to conform.

But unseen puppet masters on Mark Zuckerberg's payroll aren't to blame. We're the real culprits. When it comes to elevating one perspective above all others and herding people into culturally and ideologically inflexible tribes, nothing that Facebook does to us comes close to what we do to ourselves.

I'm talking about how we use social media in particular and the Internet in general - and how we let them use us. They're not so much agents as accomplices, new tools for ancient impulses, part of "a long sequence of technological innovations that enable us to do what we want", noted social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, who wrote the 2012 bestseller The Righteous Mind, when we spoke last week.

"And one of the things we want is to spend more time with people who think like us and less with people who are different," he added. "The Facebook effect isn't trivial. But it's metabolising or amplifying a tendency that was already there."

By "the Facebook effect", he didn't mean the possibility, discussed extensively over recent weeks, that Facebook manipulates its menu of "trending" news to emphasise liberal views and sources. That menu is just one facet of Facebook.


ST ILLUSTRATION: ADAM LEE

More prevalent for many users are the posts we see from friends and from other people and groups we follow on the network, and this information is utterly contingent on choices we ourselves make.

If we seek out, "like" and comment on angry missives from Bernie Sanders supporters, we'll be confronted with more angry missives from more Sanders supporters. If we banish such outbursts, those dispatches disappear.

A few years back, I bought some scented shower gel from Jo Malone. I made the purchase through the company's website. For months afterwards, as I toggled through cyberspace, Jo Malone stalked me, always on my digital heels, forever in a corner of my screen, a Jo Malone candle here, a Jo Malone cologne over there. I'd been profiled and pigeonholed: fan of Jo Malone. Sure, I could choose from woody, citrus, floral and even fruity, but there was no Aramis in my aromatic ecosphere and I was steered clear of Old Spice.

So it goes with the fiction we read, the movies we watch, the music we listen to and, scarily, the ideas we subscribe to. They're not challenged. They're validated and reinforced.

By bookmarking given blogs and personalising social-media feeds, we customise the news we consume and the political beliefs we're exposed to as never before. And this colours our days or, rather, bleeds them of colour, reducing them to a single hue.

We construct precisely contoured echo chambers of affirmation that turn conviction into zeal, passion into fury, disagreements with the other side into the demonisation of it.

The proliferation of cable television networks and growth of the Internet promised to expand our worlds, not shrink them. Instead, they've enhanced the speed and thoroughness with which we retreat into enclaves of the like-minded.

Eli Pariser parsed all of this in his 2011 book The Filter Bubble, noting how every tap, swipe and keystroke warps what comes next, creating a tailored reality that's closer to fiction. There was subsequent pushback to that analysis, including from scientists at Facebook, who published a peer-reviewed study in the journal Science last year that questioned just how homogeneous a given Facebook user's news feed really was.

But there's no argument that in an era that teems with choice, brims with niche marketing and exalts individualism to the extent that ours does, we're sorting ourselves with a chillingly ruthless efficiency. We've surrendered universal points of reference. We've lost common ground.

"Technology makes it much easier for us to connect to people who share some single common interest," said author Marc Dunkelman, adding that it also makes it easier for us to avoid "face-to-face interactions with diverse ideas".

Facebook, along with other social media, definitely conspires in this. Haidt noted that it often discourages dissent within a cluster of friends by accelerating shaming. "Facebook allows people to react to each other so quickly that they are really afraid to step out of line," he said.

But that's not about a lopsided news feed. It's not about some sorcerer's algorithm. It's about a tribalism that has existed for as long as humankind has and is now rooted in the fertile soil of the Internet, which is coaxing it towards a full and insidious flower.

NEW YORK TIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on June 05, 2016, with the headline 'Facebook, an echo chamber which warps our world'. Print Edition | Subscribe