If I’ve learned one thing from the Brexit vote and the ascent of Trump, it’s that inside social media I live in my own echo chamber. Both events took me by surprise. While the mainstream media showed support from all sides in these contests, in Facebook and Twitter, I was seeing overwhelming support for remaining in the EU and strong arguments and jokes against Trump – though divided between supporting Saunders and Clinton.
Of course, in Facebook my ‘friends’ are mostly my former students and colleagues, fellow writers and a few friends who really are friends, in the sense of the word before Facebook. It is no surprise that educated and liberal would define this select group. On top of that, my Facebook interactions have been infiltrated by Mark Zuckerberg’s algorithms, sending me postings from people and organisations which are not my friends, but are clearly like-minded – but sadly, not always accurate – I’ve stopped waiting for the ‘child-rape’ charges to be pressed against Trump.
Twitter is another matter. I started my Twitter account when I was still working in academia fulltime and used it as a way of furthering my own research. As a writer, I also follow other writers, certain publishing houses and publications, etc. In other words, I’ve been following loads of people I don’t know personally. Yet, many of these strangers were touting the same views as I was when it came to the Brexit and Trump. We retweet and like each other’s tweets. It could be argued that these people were indirectly hand-picked because they were likely to share the same views – after all, they’re academics or in creative fields.
Since the Brexit vote, in order to keep sane and to participate in the fight against a hard Brexit, I have deliberately started following political organisations, e.g. the Lib-Dems and Open Britain, for the latest news and information on protest marches and petitions. Hence, reinforcing the walls of my online echo chamber.
Offline, while my choice of friends keeps me contently among the like-minded, I also find myself in situations with people who are my political polar-opposites. In Nice, for instance, the expat community sometimes has me face-to-face with regular readers of The Daily Telegraph, which openly backed Brexit. Such encounters challenge me to show up prepared with statistics and references. I do my best, though probably to little or no effect.
At least with Trump’s win my online and offline worlds are not so different. I have not had to come face-to-face with any Trump supporter – I don’t know what I would say to one if I did. It would be like confronting someone who has joined a cult – they have chosen to believe the unbelievable and they are clearly nurturing a need that places them beyond reason.
Yet, my offline world – and my online world outside of social media – with news programmes and newspapers, keep me informed about what others are thinking – the polemics of the debates. The walls of my echo chamber might be strong, but they do have windows.