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Trump, Brexit and the echo chamber effect

Although 70 years old, President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s words have never been more prescient, in light of social media’s possible influence on Brexit and the US presidential election of Donald Trump:

“Democracy cannot succeed unless those who express their choice are prepared to choose wisely. The real safeguard of democracy, therefore, is education.”

Experts speculate that dubious news stories and other spurious, emotive content helped sway public opinion and manipulate swing voters. And social media facilitated this with virtual ‘echo chambers’ – where users are presented with content reinforcing their worldview, polarising opinion, and effectively stifling balanced reporting to an informed public.

Yet the same psychological mechanisms behind recent events can equally be used for good. Deployed responsibly, they can unite, inform and engage people, for positive ends like behavioural culture change and keeping people safe.

Therein lies both opportunity and threat, notes Dr Jenny Lunt, Occupational Health Psychologist at Tribe. Approach with caution and use judiciously, she warns.

“The echo chambers created by social media are compromising people’s ability to make informed choices because they confirm existing points of view, and present only snippets of information that people can’t properly engage with, as opposed to full, impartial and balanced accounts from trusted sources. So it creates this distorted view which compromises democracy.

“It’s much easier for people to be politically active now by clicking ‘like’ or sharing something, which is good, but it’s often anonymous and with little cost to yourself. There aren’t any personal consequences, whereas with other mediums the consequences would influence your decision to act or not.

“Companies need to be wary that if they use these techniques to influence the behaviour of their staff, they must understand the mechanisms behind them and the responsibility and risks that come along with that.

“Humans have system one thinking, which is the automatic decision-making, and system two, which is the rational side. All our biases are in system one – it’s instinctive and helps us react quickly and take shortcuts. But the disadvantages are that it skews our understanding of a situation. A lot of the filters within social media work at this level, exploiting confirmation bias – where we selectively pay attention to information that confirms our existing beliefs. This way, opinions become more polarised and unchallenged by alternative points of view.

“Emotional messages tend to resonate more at the system one level. Tribe use a similar effect for positive ends, with sticky messages that keep people safe by associating behaviour at work with happy family life, for example. Like BAE Systems’ ‘Start safe, talk safe, home safe‘ message.

“But it’s easy to see how that can be exploited for the wrong reasons. Social media can shape where our information comes from and who’s presented as credible or not. This has been used to undermine the role of experts.

“By over-simplifying issues into simple black or white, people might unintentionally propagate clickbait without fully understanding the motives or bias behind them, and end up championing a dangerous cause or extremist view that harms people.

“I think there’s no substitute for people meeting face-to-face, challenging one another and offsetting any harmful polarisation that happens within different tribes inside an organisation.

“Once hooked by sticky messages, people need support and education, for a deep, engaged understanding of why health and safety is important. That takes us back to why people are more empowered when they have the knowledge and skills to make informed choices.

“The scale of echo chambers on social media is new territory but there are lessons we can learn. Organisations who communicate in this way must think carefully to avoid unanticipated consequences. That means investing time and effort in bringing different Tribes together, so they exchange different viewpoints in healthy discussion and identify areas of common interest. In a busy, noisy world, experts really do have a role in helping people make informed choices – despite what Michael Gove says.”

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