Trump, news consumption, echo chambers, and elections in the age of social media

(By Diana Zhao, Queen’s University)

The 2016 American Presidential election was a race like no other. After a grueling primary, months of campaign coverage, and pre-election polls, the victory of Donald J. Trump came as a shock to the world. But if information suggesting the possibility of a Trump Presidency has always been available on the Internet, then what explains the widespread bewilderment following his awe-inspiring victory?

On the surface, it may seem that the failure of mass media to fulfill journalistic duties was responsible, however a closer examination of contemporary media consumption patterns suggests that media bias is only a small part of a bigger problem.

Limited exposure to diverse news sources led liberals to anticipate the victory of Hillary Clinton. This selective exposure to news content, pled people to believe that their perspectives aligned with dominant worldviews. These human tendencies are exacerbated in the age of social media due to filter bubbles. Coined by Eli Pariser,  filter bubbles explain the effects of the automatic algorithmic editing of web content that prioritizes information based on the user’s personal interests.

The rise of social media in particular has led to a shift in news consumption patterns, especially among youths. Younger generations choose to typically consume content through the social media platform of official news outlet accounts and through the social media platforms of politicians. The Internet is a breeding ground for a vast variety of opinions, due to its ability to allow citizens to disseminate information to the public with ease. Social media allows perspectives not broadcasted on mass media to be publicized through an alternative outlet. Unlike mass media journalists, who have career incentives to cover news stories in a politically biased way, most social media users publish content based on their personal beliefs.

Just like in mass media, there is a distinct divide in the content on social media and digital news sources throughout the campaign period. Coverage of major campaign events with a bias towards Hillary Clinton would commend her on her coherent responses regarding pressing issues and proclaim that she had won debates. Content with a Democratic bias would focus on the negative aspects of Donald Trump, highlighting his controversial comments and actions with negative connotations. At the same time, there was an abundance of content circulated through social media that supported a likelihood of a Trump victory. Online news sources with a Republican bias frequently attacked Hillary Clinton and excessively covered controversies she may have been involved in. However, from examining Donald Trump’s social media platforms, it is evident that he had a large support base that openly and actively engaged with his social media posts.

The prevalence of social media in the modern context has made it easier than ever for people to be stuck in a digital echo chamber, only exposed to content that aligns with their personal values and beliefs. Since people are predisposed to consume media from outlets that share their values, their perspectives become limited to ideologically similar sources. A consequence of this is that people are frequently lead to believe that their political views are the dominant or most popular perspectives.

With a growing number of news organizations using social media platforms as a way of marketing and distributing content, more users are using social media to get news content than ever before. A study conducted in 2012 shows that social networks are becoming a significant source of news for Canadians. Over two-fifths of social networking users receive news from people they follow on services like Facebook, while a fifth get news from news organizations and individual journalists they follow on social media platforms. The personal connections between social media users have a major impact on the type of information they are exposed to. The ease of sharing digital content on social media increases a user’s exposure to content that is interesting to others in their network. But because a person’s social connections generally have values and beliefs that align with their own, using social media as a tool of obtaining political information limits the perspective they are exposed to.

While it is likely that those with a larger social network may have connections with contrasting perspectives, people are unlikely to be exposed to content from those individuals. The invisible algorithmic editing of both social media feed and search engine results provide users with a highly personalized Internet experience. With regards to the recent election, Facebook is a major culprit of using algorithms to supply users with information similar to their own beliefs. Based on a user’s engagement with previous posts on the platform, the social media program finds patterns in the content and provides news feed that is similar in content for future use of the platform. It is evident that the algorithmic editing of social media feeds on Facebook plays a major role in the collective skewed expectations regarding election outcomes among Hillary Clinton’s supporters.

Generally, people’s social networks are composed of others who share their values and beliefs. Combined with the algorithms that prioritize posts supporting their perspective while hiding contradictory posts, social media can only offer a narrow perspective aligning with their own. For Clinton supporters, their biases are reinforced through increased social media usage as they are frequently exposed to posts and articles that contain a similar bias, many of which lack factual accuracy. Those who are misinformed by months of being stuck in the filter bubble had a rude awakening when the election results were announced. Rather than following what had really happened in the political race, they were blindsided by their confidence in a Clinton victory, and did not consider a win by Trump possible.

The negative effects of filter bubbles on social media can also extend beyond the limits of the virtual communities and cause a polarized division in society offline. On social media, people are surrounded by social connections that hold similar views and exposed to content that they agree with, narrowing their perspective of the world. Without exposure to a wider range of perspectives, people are more susceptible to manipulation and propaganda. Search engines and social media platforms filter content based on the patterns of media consumptions regardless of the contents’ accuracy. Because of this, people are stuck in an echo chamber of specific repeated ideas. In the physical world, this causes a division of the population into niche groups of people with contradicting perspectives, each exposed to different information. In the extreme case this could lead to polarized social groups that are isolated from each other, increasing the risk of chances of civil conflict.

People’s increasingly dependence on social media makes them more susceptible to the detrimental effects of the algorithmic editing of digital content. By prioritizing content that aligns with a person’s patterns of media consumption, people’s exposure to diverse sources of news content is hindered, causing a narrow perspective leading to the risk of being misinformed about political events. To prevent this, citizens can burst the filter bubble to stay politically informed through a wider range of sources when seeking information and questioning the credibility of the content they consume.

To stay politically informed, citizens must take advantage of the fragmented media landscape and obtain information from a wider variety of resources. Although it is inevitable to come across news stories that contain partisan bias and lack accuracy, citizens must critically engage with the content and evaluate whether the source is credible. Algorithms on the web will not disappear anytime soon, however people do not have to fall prey to filter bubbles. In realizing the effects of web personalization, people can make a special effort to search for resources that offer contradictory perspectives. Simply consuming the information that is readily available on social media newsfeed will only result in consumers falling deeper in the trap of filter bubbles.