This is how social media decides who you drink coffee with on the internet

In the same way that we only meet over coffee people with whom we have an affinity, in social networks we surround ourselves with those we like. In the field of digital private relationships, we believe that we are also guided, freely, by our personal preferences, but the truth is that it is the networks themselves with their algorithms that determine who we see and with whom we interact.

In 2004, the tech giant with the most citizenship information, Google, decided to change its code so that the search each user performs on its platform will return personalized results.

At Google, they were the pioneers, but all the big digital companies followed. It had a big cultural impact, as the tech activist explains Eli Pariserbecause it led to the creation of the filter bubbles (bubble filters): We were individually encapsulated (based on our history), invisible (not knowing other like-minded members), and inadvertent (not noticed in searches).

The simplest example is to enter YouTube and see how a series of content proposals appear based on our previous consumption, different for each person. But, going a little further, it is worth asking why the advertisements that appear when we browse correspond to the searches we have carried out in store on line. We do not know that, for this, there must have been a transfer of private data. Since 2016, major geopolitical events have brought these questions into the public debate.

Trump’s election and Brexit, the key events

After Brexit was approved, it was learned that the company Cambridge Analytica had combined the mining and analysis of data from Facebook, without the authorization of users, to promote currents of opinion favorable to the exit of the United Kingdom from the European Union. Similarly, when Donald Trump was elected President of the United States, it was confirmed the importance of these bubbles to induce favorable climates of opinion during his campaign.

Zuckerberg’s network implements an algorithm so that your to feed news is inspired by our previous experience and that of our contacts. The platform observes the other profiles to which we pay the most attention – and increases our permanence on their page – and prioritizes their publications on our wall. In this way, from the previous choices of each, he isolates it and exposes only to content which, firstyou might be interested.

These episodes showed that the most used social network in the world had commercialized the personal data of millions of people, had fueled the bubble filters and that this, without a doubt, had an influence beyond the screen: in the world politics. In other words, not only did he choose who we drank this metaphorical digital coffee with, when we thought we were free to choose, but it became decisive in historical events.

These phenomena have highlighted the importance of multidisciplinary and rigorous debate on the formation of opinion in digital spaces.

Echo chambers in networks and their social consequences

With algorithms, opinion groups called ecological rooms oh echo chambers. Although not a new concept, it has gained unusual potential with social media. They are bounded spaces within which messages between like-minded people are amplified and, at the same time, they are isolated from other communities.

This phenomenon is artificially fed from these platforms. So, for example, when we configure Twitter, it allows us to choose whether we see our chronology –wall– in chronological order or if the most important tweets predominate, those which generate the most interaction and the application thinks that we are the most interested. Most of the time, we opted for this second option.

It is understandable that, like in real life, we surround ourselves with the virtual world with whom we love. Decades ago, from sociology, it was explained with the theory of uses and gratifications. Twitter chooses for us who we drink digital coffee with, surrounds us with similar profiles, and hides from us that there are very different people, other topics of conversation and opinions, creating a false appearance of freedom and uniformity. which impoverishes the public debate.

Selective exposure to information and polarization

The closure of focus is not only impoverishing on a personal level, but also has important consequences on the consumption of information which is increasingly made through the networks. Once located inside the echo chamber, Twitter and Facebook determine which are our closest communication media and we thus receive content that feeds our opinion. Is called selective exposure and is an old acquaintance of communication science.

People prefer media that reinforces their opinion to media that makes them uncomfortable. Platforms, who want to keep users browsing their pages and knowing all of our personal information, know how to feed us the media diet we love. Facebook creates like-minded communities and, with it, the segregation of society into communities of similar thought increases without our noticing it. These echo chambers have a strong ideological coherence because they are continuously fed by related content and users and, simultaneously, the distance between the groups increases.

The strategy of social networks has fed and contributed, at the same time, to the polarization of society. There is no possibility to refute the messages, to hear contrary opinions. A clear us versus them, the two poles, is established with positive feedback for our interpretative frameworks.

In this context, when a fake news enters the scene is likely to be shared if it serves to reinforce the opinion of the group, as it happened during the election of Trump; it becomes an optimal ammunition for the debate between opposites since it is usually very excessive and with the capacity to go viral.

Thus, we take the coffee that has been chosen for us, with people who think the same way and hold in their hands the same newspaper that we love. We are all unknowingly invited by Twitter, which does not pay but charges, and we are unaware that there are other profoundly different virtual cafes. Seeing only this reality may seem comfortable, but ignoring contemporary social and ideological plurality weakens coexistence and makes public dialogue difficult.

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