Big Tech, Social Media & The Echo Chamber

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I have decided to take some time away from Instagram while I try to sort out my thoughts about the platform. In particular, I’m concerned about the role that parent company Facebook plays in shaping dialogue in our increasingly polarised world.

I don’t use Facebook itself. I deleted my Facebook account in March 2012 and I’ve explored my reasons for that here. In brief, I decided to stop using the platform as it kept me artificially connected with ‘friends’ who were really just acquaintances, because I was fed up with the hollow performance of it all, and because of concerns I held about the direction the network was moving in as an advertising platform. 2012 feels like a long time ago now, in the life of the internet. Technology and society have changed so much over the course of the past decade or so, taking us further and further away from what the internet, in my opinion, should be: open and accessible to all, a tool that helps us to connect, to share information, and to solve problems by removing the barriers that stand in the way of communication and collaboration without sacrificing privacy, safety or democracy.

The internet is increasingly becoming a series of walled gardens; spaces owned by private companies who mine our data for profit. These companies’ business interests dictate the algorithms that shape the software we use to communicate with one another and live our lives. To many, search, maps and video are Google, shopping is Amazon, podcasts and music are iTunes, and social image based sharing is Facebook – whether via WhatsApp, Instagram, or Facebook’s main app. There are other small bit players, but as soon as they succeed and become a threat, they’re bought up by one of the big three and so there’s no real competition or alternative but to use the services provided by the big technology companies.

Confirmation Bias & The Echo Chamber

Google has been so successful and become so dominant that ‘Google’ is often used as a verb. ‘To Google’ something means ‘to perform an internet search’. Of course there are alternative search engines, but the vast majority of netizens don’t look beyond the browser and search engine that comes installed as the default option on their phone or computer. When Google is the most accurate, the most powerful, the most likely to turn up the goods, why look elsewhere? I felt like this for a while, too, but I started to care about my search history being tracked and my ability to access unbiased search results – by which I mean non-personalised, diverse and inclusive – around 2009 when I was a PhD student and using search engines to turn up journal articles, newspaper reports, and archival material about nuclear development and protest movements around the world. I noticed that Google was developing a profile of my search habits, iteratively fine tuning the information they presented to me based on my search history – even if I was signed out of my account.

I didn’t find Google’s fine tuning of my search results helpful, as it prevented me from reading broadly and I found it channelled my research down an increasingly narrow pathway. This feature of Google Search is called search personalisation, and it’s designed to help Google deliver search results that will please you. If you repeatedly click on search results that link to certain publications, Google will learn your preferences, and tailor future search results accordingly. While it’s good for Google’s business for algorithms to be designed to behave like this, the downside is that it fosters confirmation bias and the echo chamber effect, and acts like a road block when users want to branch out and read more broadly on a search topic. I believe that Google now permits users to toggle search personalisation on and off, but of course you need to be signed in to Google or using a cookie cleared browser for that to take effect.

I’ve used Firefox as my browser for over fifteen years – set to prevent tracking and delete my history and cache every time I close it – and for the past five years or so I have used Duck Duck Go as my search engine of choice rather than Google, but I know that I am an outlier. I make these choices because of my concerns about Google’s market dominance, my privacy, the impact of personalised search results, and the way Google uses my data to target adverts at me and create a digital fingerprint even if I choose to browse whilst signed out of my Google account using a privacy focused browser. I care about internet privacy, data security and algorithmically biased search results more than most people do. I am aware that I come across as a serious bore, and I know that it’s a dry and dull topic that many people don’t care to explore. Most people don’t think about these things; if something works well, then that’s all that matters to them.

Despite my issues with Google, I have a Google account. As a self-employed creative it wouldn’t be practical to prevent Google from listing my websites, and so I use their search console tools to help shape how Google lists them. I try to steer clear of Google as much as possible though. I use my Google account for email as a last resort if for any reason I have problems with the email accounts I have set up on server space I pay for alongside my domains. I also run a rooted GAPPS free smartphone with a custom ROM so that I don’t have to have Google Play Services on my phone. I do use Google for YouTube though, which is a platform I’d rather not use but as a filmmaker have little choice but to accept as part of my workflow. I prefer Vimeo for video quality, the ability to replace files, custom URLs, privacy settings and the absence of advertising and clickbait on the platform, but YouTube is where people go for video. It’s where the audience is, and I am not at the stage of my career where I am established enough to turn my back on that.

Google isn’t the only big technology or social media company I take issue with. I’ve written about my issues with Amazon and why I have decided to boycott Amazon here. I don’t use Facebook, and I don’t use WhatsApp for messaging preferring SMS and email. I don’t like the idea of Facebook having access to my entire chat history through WhatsApp logs. While I avoid giving data to the big technology companies as much as possible, I do use Instagram. Let me explain.

Instagram | Why I used it in the first place

I am a freelance photographer and filmmaker. I started out filming and then photographing weddings as a means to get my foot in the door when I changed career paths after graduating in 2014, and I am now moving into the world of independent documentary filmmaking and portrait photography. Instagram is the place people go for photography. Flickr is better – better image quality, better privacy settings, and it’s built for photographers by photographers – but Instagram is where the community is. Instagram is for photographs what YouTube is for video. There are alternative platforms, but they are not popular enough to replace Facebook’s Instagram or Google’s YouTube. I wish they were, but they’re not. The big technology companies have accumulated a critical mass of users, and people naturally gravitate to the platforms their friends, families and fans or customers use.

I deliberated long and hard over whether to open an Instagram account. I didn’t want to follow everyone I’d ever met, and I didn’t want to use it the way many people use Facebook and are increasingly using Instagram – to share selfies, holiday snaps and their latest acquisitions or accomplishments. I’ve nothing against those who want to use Instagram in such a way, but it’s not for me. I use Instagram as a platform to share my work and to connect with other creatives – photographers, filmmakers, musicians, illustrators, animators etc, whose work interests or inspires me. Inevitably, since I started using my full name as my handle, I have fallen into the obligation trap and ended up following and being followed by people I know offline who use Instagram more like Facebook. This makes me uncomfortable, but I care too much about upsetting people or committing a social faux pas to do anything about it. At the moment, at least.

On the whole though, Instagram is a platform I enjoy. I have met some wonderful creative people through Instagram who I consider friends even though we haven’t had the opportunity to meet up offline. Instagram is brilliant for helping introverts connect. My interests are pretty solitary, and yet I’ve met people who like the same things as me because I have an account on Instagram. The reason Instagram is so good at connecting people though, is also the reason that it troubles me as much as it does. Instagram is an echo chamber and by design exacerbates confirmation bias. This is one of my biggest issues with the big technology companies and their advertising based revenue models.

Social media companies, just like Google, make money by selling advertising space. They need to keep platform users active, and the best way to do this is to keep them scrolling, clicking, tapping, engaging. They achieve this through a combination of variable rewards, and algorithms that act like positive feedback loops, helping us to curate personal bubbles based on our interests as individuals. If you’re interested in pottery and contemporary ceramics and you follow a few potters, then you will notice that your explore page fills up with visually similar images and videos to the accounts you already follow. If you love fine art photography, again, your explore page will soon fill up with beautiful portraits and film photographs. If you’re an athlete and you like running or swimming, or you’re a musician and you play cello or piano, likewise, Instagram will tailor your explore page accordingly. So far, addictiveness aside, so harmless.

What if you use Instagram – or Facebook for it operates the same way – for news though, or you are on the platform to keep up with friends and family rather than to share your work or connect with others around a shared hobby? What if you follow a cousin who repeatedly posts conspiracy theory memes about vaccinations or 5G, or a colleague who is openly racist? What about those posts by a good friend who constantly shares unsubstantiated claims about economics or the environment? Instagram learns these preferences too. Your explore feed will fill up with hatred, misinformation and lies. Facebook doesn’t want to do anything about this, citing free speech. Facebook is more likely to take down a photograph of a breastfeeding mother or a fine art nude than they are to respond to misinformation or hate speech with a heavy hand.

It goes two ways. The liberal / left / university or college educated, city dwelling, and overwhelmingly young communities on Instagram respond to racism with a day of black squares and #blackouttuesday hashtags. They post memes to their followers about being actively anti-racist or anti-fascist. I’ve witnessed photographers and musicians for whom I have great respect turn their accounts into protest platforms, posting memes, links, photographs and graphics to counter the increasing hatred and misinformation rising from Instagram’s advertiser-pleasing algorithmic depths. Yet the liberals / left keep losing elections, Black communities continue to struggle for equality, and the chasm between left and right grows ever wider.

When we use platforms that are designed to keep us clicking by showing us exactly what we want, confirming our views and never challenging us to think differently, we rarely step outside our echo chambers. The left screams to the left, the right screams to the right, and divisions multiply. Perhaps it’s human instinct, to seek out those who share our views on the world. As biased, fallible humans prone to subjectivity, I suspect that it is also impossible for any team of developers – no matter how well intentioned – to create an entirely bias free platform. After all, all knowledge is subjective, and all narratives are socially and politically constructed. To an extent, social media is a mirror of society and human nature. That said, I believe that social media companies such as Facebook have a responsibility and a unique opportunity to encourage and foster balanced, fact based dialogue.

The algorithms that drive social media applications need to be designed better than they are at present. For every misinformed or hateful meme shared on a social media platform such as Instagram, a warning should be displayed alongside it stating that the post is partial, biased, inaccurate, or incites violence or hatred. Twitter has just started to do this and it’s long overdue that Facebook takes action too. If Facebook can effectively moderate self-harm and eating disorder related content, then the technology already exists for a roll-out across other topics on its platforms. This could be achieved by using hashtags in combination with image recognition software to identify and rapidly flag, block or take down multiple instances of similar posts. Logistics shouldn’t be a barrier to effective platform moderation.

No matter how well intentioned it is for liberal or left-wing users to share anti-racism, anti-hatred messages to their followers, when people are shouting into an echo chamber of like minded friends, family and fans, the impact outside of their social and political bubble is negligible. The system needs to be altered to effect meaningful change when it comes to misinformation and hate speech on social media platforms.

Image Recognition Software and Racial Bias

My second big concern with Instagram is the rise of image recognition software and the role it appears to play in the explore algorithm. I haven’t studied the API and I am not a developer – my programming skills are fairly basic – but from my time on the platform I have noticed that Instagram’s explore page seems to be populated by images that are visually very similar to photographs or images I have already engaged with via a like or comment. This makes sense, given that Instagram’s success and advertising revenue depends on keeping users happy, and delivering more of the same is a very easy way to do that.

I follow a lot of portrait photographers on Instagram, and I have noticed that I have to go out of my way to find images of black models, or by black photographers. It’s not that I don’t want to see images of black models or follow the work of black artists, but Instagram’s algorithm and use of image recognition has resulted in a page of suggestions for me that are visually very similar to my initial searches, likes and follows. My unconscious bias towards art and artists who look like me has skewed the explore page results. I have noticed the same happening with illustration styles I like, as well as with music. It has led to my explore page being very homogenous and predictable. I am interested in seeing art by people from all over the world, not just by white or English speaking artists, and while I am aware of my bias and take steps to make my feed and explore page more inclusive of marginalised voices and different perspectives – not just because of my political beliefs but because I am genuinely interested in engaging with a diverse range of artwork – I think more could be done to balance the algorithmic output in the first place. Not everyone notices or cares about the biased nature of the algorithm. I might even go as far as to suggest that those who would benefit the most from seeing a more diverse and inclusive explore page – as artists, as activists, as vote wielding citizens – are the least likely to actively pursue it themselves.

Changes I would like to see Facebook introduce across their platforms

I think that Facebook could make some small improvements to their platforms that would have seismic repercussions and go a long way to helping heal the divisions which we are facing at this present moment in time. First of all, I want to see Facebook crack down on hate speech and misinformation across their apps. They need to work more quickly to remove hate speech and misinformation, or where they are unwilling to because they believe there’s a grey area in the name of free speech, to display warnings alongside the content in question. These are the central aims of the ‘Stop Hate for Profit’ campaign in the USA. I would like to see the campaign extend beyond the borders of the United States, as I feel the aims are global.

Secondly, I want to see Instagram’s algorithm change to be more inclusive and diverse. It’d make the app more exciting to use, and I would probably spend more time on the explore page if I felt that it was turning up different voices and perspectives on a regular basis. I don’t want to just see the same things and faces, over and over again. It would help artists and creative people feel more inspired, and it would help break the echo chamber effect for those who use Instagram to keep up with friends and family.

I haven’t used Facebook in such a long time that I don’t know what the website or app look like, or whether there is an explore page on Facebook too. Perhaps Facebook has its own challenges and unique features that someone who has more recent experience of the platform could point out. My experience is with Instagram, and that’s why I’ve been focusing on it in this blog post.

Ultimately, I want to and need to go back to Instagram. I enjoy connecting with the creative community and chatting to people all over the world about art. I like sharing my work, and it’s a wonderful way to get my photographs and films in front of people who share the same interests as me. I am also aware that my personal boycott – as a photographer and filmmaker with a tiny following who hasn’t spent a penny on advertising in all the years I’ve had an Instagram account – is not going to make much difference. I know that I am an idealist, and I am far too stubborn for my own good. The impact of my boycott is negligible. I have decided to take some time away from Instagram as I felt uncomfortable being part of the problem, and turning a blind eye to what’s going on. Facebook, Instagram and their biased algorithms were instrumental in the success of the Vote Leave campaign, the Trump campaign in the 2016 presidential election in the USA, and the re-election of the Conservatives in the 2019 general election in the UK. Facebook’s algorithms and unwillingness to moderate content in a meaningful way has fuelled populism, hate speech, racism and campaigns based on misinformation the world over, continuing with the 5G and vaccination conspiracies that are circulating at the time of writing. Change is long overdue.

Facebook as a publisher and advertising platform has a lot to answer for. I feel quite strongly that I cannot just stand by and do nothing, even though my actions as an individual feel very small and ineffective. Short of direct action by Facebook and by our politicians in holding the big technology companies to account though, I don’t know what else to do.

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