Confirmation Bias, Social Media and the 2017 General Election

Fake news, false news, bias news—whatever epithet we assign it, questioning the veracity of the news around us has become a popular pastime since the inauguration of Trump. But there is a perhaps more insidious encroachment upon our ability to comprehend the plethora of news around us: the phenomenon of confirmation bias, reinforced by social media algorithms. This is a problem especially acute among millennials, 60 percent of whom get the bulk of their news from Facebook.

Put simply, confirmation bias is when we select pieces of information that ratify and support our beliefs, thereby reinforcing our views and provoking a retrenchment of political standpoints. It is hardly a new phenomenon. As humans, we align ourselves within groups who share a similar outlook and value-system. Since the age of mass-print in the early 20th century, the population could select which papers they chose to read based on their political beliefs: those on the right may read The Telegraph or the Daily Mail; those on the left, The Mirror or The Guardian.

But we have reached a critical juncture for two reasons. Firstly, the age of mass print is declining as we increasingly get our news online; secondly, whereas the confirmation bias of old was indicative of actions taken of our own volition – choosing where we live, with whom we associate and where we get our news from – modern day confirmation bias is more subtle, resulting less from the active choice of the user and more from the ability of social media algorithms to present us with information preordained to fit with our worldview. As such, the user is lulled into a false understanding of the political and social milieu they inhabit outside the confines of social media. Sites such as Facebook actively augment this confirmation bias through the use of algorithms which show the user similar sites, views and ideas to their own, based on what the user clicks on and ‘likes’, acting as an echo chamber for the political convictions of the user.

the user is lulled into a false understanding of the political and social milieu they inhabit outside the confines of social media

As a case in point, millennials, the greatest demographic user of social media, are far more likely to vote Labour than say, the much more prolific voters of generation Y. One can generalise and say the social media for many millennials is imbalanced, promulgating more leftist news, comments, post and even meme pages than centrist or right news, based on the algorithms assigned to the users. An echo chamber of leftist ideas creates a fundamental disconnect from the value-systems of those that do not frequent social media—or in other words, the majority of people over the age of 40.

A litmus test to determine the extent of left-leaning politics on social media in Britain can be found by comparing the Labour Party’s Facebook page with that of the Conservatives. With the Labour Party’s Facebook page boasting nearly 40% more ‘likes’ than its centre-right counterpart, this reveals a stark difference between social media support and the polls which, at the time of writing, place the Conservatives well ahead, although the gap is tightening.

Perhaps more revealing are Facebook comments which arise through what is essentially a perfect democracy: the more support, the more popular the comment will be. On Labour posts, comments generally support Corbyn for an array of reasons. In contrast, on Conservatives posts, there is utter derision for May. A personal favourite which achieved over one hundred likes wrote “we can’t all stand with May. There’s really only limited standing space on a pile of corpses of the poor, the disabled and the foxes”. This was on a Conservative post, a place you would expect to find pro-Conservative comments. The point being, it is incredibly hard to find popular comments advocating the Conservative cause, even on Conservative posts. This represents the outcome of this confirmation bias, and acts as a further reinforcement of it.

On Labour posts, comments generally support Corbyn… on Conservatives posts, there is utter derision for May.

Perhaps most damaging is the wealth of comments from exasperated social media users who write “the voting pattern is a mystery” indicating a fundamental incomprehension for why someone would vote Tory. This is extremely dangerous as a fundamental failure to understand why a huge percentage of the electorate vote for another party indicates an absence of empathy for the opposing side’s political grievances and an insufficient understanding of the array of political views expounded by fellow voters. For the 60% that get most of their news from social media, confirmation bias creates and further exacerbates an incomprehension of opposing views and leads to a disconnect between attitudes propounded online to those of the real world.

The point of this article is not to be partisan, but to instead counter such behaviour by raising an awareness for the echo chamber that can be social media. Social media does not, for example, always support the leftist candidate, nor is social media itself intrinsically leftist. The Trump campaign spent less than half that of Hillary Clinton on TV ads, instead choosing to put greater resources into creating a considerable online presence, helping lead him to victory. Assisting Trump with this was the blossoming of alt-right news outlets such as Breitbart, championing the Trump cause. In much the same way, alternative British media sources, through the medium of social media, are growing. The Canary, for example, proclaims itself to be `fresh, fearless, independent journalism` and is probably thought to be such by those 60% millennials who get most their news from social media.  In reality it is no more than a propaganda mouthpiece for Corbynistas.

So, in the case of the British election, British social media presence indicates a sharp turn to the left, which, influenced and advanced by social media algorithms creates a distorted prism by which to view politics for those that get most their news online via social media. Paradoxically and seemingly unbeknownst to them, millennials, despite having greater access to information than ever before, find themselves increasingly confined to the hermetically sealed echo chambers of social media, to the detriment of our political discourse.