Social media less impactful than feared

Most people obtain information from multiple sources. So-called "echo chambers" have little significance for most of us, a new study shows.

Social media attract most of the blame for the apparent flourishing of conspiracy theories and people with extreme attitudes. The way social media is structured can make it difficult for opposing perspectives to find their way to users, resulting in so-called "echo chambers."

The theory is that you hear more like-minded narratives because other users in the same echo chamber agree with your opinions. These other users produce the so-called "echoes" in the chamber.

But it turns out that social media may not be as much to blame as many people think.

Contributes to diverse information, too

“The vast majority of people don’t live in echo chambers, but are exposed to pretty diverse information, including – and often especially – on social media. For example, it often happens that friends share surprising information that we wouldn’t otherwise have found. In those cases the information diversity on social media can be even greater than from other sources,” says Melanie Magin, an associate professor at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology's (NTNU)Department of Sociology and Political Science.

A new study was conducted by people from NTNU and Johannes Gutenberg-Universität Mainz in Germany and recently published in Digital Journalism.

The research group focused in particular on the large influx of refugees in Germany a few years ago and people's attitudes to it. Over one million refugees entered the country in the years 2015-2016.

“We looked at who tended to showcase and share their views on the ‘refugee crisis.’ The individuals who most actively share their opinions are those who follow more political information. The engaging effect of social media doesn’t differ significantly from the effect of traditional news media, search engines or personal conversations,” says Stefan Geiß at NTNU’s Department of Sociology and Political Science.

News media still important

Both truth and lies spread much faster than before, due in part to social media. Sometimes telling the difference between real and fake news can be difficult. It’s therefore often wise to obtain information from several sources.

“The news media are really important for accessing credible and diverse information for most people,” Magin says.

Previous research may have exaggerated the influence of echo chambers, perhaps because it didn’t adequately take into account that people don’t only seek out social media but also other more traditional media, such as television, radio and serious online news media.

“Just like with social media content, most people use traditional media selectively to match their political views: which media they prefer, what news they read and the information they remember. This general pattern may be stronger and more visible in social media. But what we see are more graduated differences, not a completely different world,” says Geiß.

How echo chambers work

Echo chambers in social media arise due to the way such media are often structured. What you the user are interested in affects what you see more of later. The social media algorithms learn from users' behaviour what they are interested in.

If you like posts that say no to vaccines or surf the web for that kind of information, you’ll get a more of those posts. The same with people who believe that the earth is flat, that the moon landings never took place or that the Democrats stole the election in the United States.

“Everyone’s exposed to this to a certain extent. But what we signal to the social media algorithms with our behaviour is the most important. A lot of people are actually interested becoming informed on lots of different topics and about opposing perspectives. They click on a wide range of content on social media. Then the algorithms learn that those users are interested in diversity, so users subsequently receive even more diverse information on social media. This approach can bring about the opposite of an echo chamber,” says Magin.

This often applies especially to people who are interested in politics.

Few people use only social media

“Our data show that only a few people exclusively use social media to becomed informed about politics: The more a person uses social media for political information, the greater the chance that the same person uses other news media too,” says Geiß.

Most of the news media in Germany were positive about the refugees who arrived. This dominance was not necessarily reflected in the debates and posts on social media, but the information from the traditional media could contribute to a balance.

Those with most extreme views caught

A small number still manage to fall into these echo chambers and stay there. These are often people who already have extreme opinions and who are receptive to even more of what they have begun to believe.

In addition, they spread their information via social media to a greater extent than others.

“But research indicates that these echo chambers don’t completely rule out other sources of information. It’s more that the information is immediately interpreted when it enters the echo chamber to fit the prevailing perception there. For example, users might write that the news media is lying, and that in reality everything is totally different,” says Magin.

“Our findings show that it’s important to not only look at how often a person uses social media for political information – it also depends on how they use social media. Who they follow is really important: are they mostly private contacts, news media, politicians or alternative sources among their "likes", or a good mix?” says Geiß.

Reference: Stefan Geiß, Melanie Magin, Pascal Jürgens & Birgit Stark. Loopholes in the Echo Chambers: How the Echo Chamber Metaphor Oversimplifies the Effects of Information Gateways on Opinion Expression. Published online: 02 Feb 2021.

Full bibliographic information

Stefan Geiß, Melanie Magin, Pascal Jürgens & Birgit Stark. Loopholes in the Echo Chambers: How the Echo Chamber Metaphor Oversimplifies the Effects of Information Gateways on Opinion Expression. Published online: 02 Feb 2021.

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