The apocalyptic side of big data: eco chambers

In this second blog post, I would like to go a little bit deeper into the issues raised in this collective blog. In particular, I will briefly analyse the potential risks of the so-called ‘dictatorship of the algorithm’.

First of all, we need to recognise the immense power of information and data in shaping today’s world. One of the main concepts that can easily illustrate so is the concept of ‘mediatization’, where “media […] shapes and frames the processes and discourse of political communication as well as the society” (Lilleker, 2008, p.117). More specifically, media have the power to reinforce stereotypes and ‘eco chambers’, both denying direct access to some voices – particularly the one not aligned with a certain system – and in proposing again and again the same clusters of information to a specific audience, targeted by the analysis of big data.

A recent experiment from Facebook on the ‘emotion contagion’ – i.e. manipulating the News Feed timeline of about 700,000 users showing them positive or negative information – has clearly illustrated the risks of big data and, in my opinion, of shaping the narrative of how we consume news and know the world.

The enthusiasm for the democratization of the Internet and the rise of a ‘collective intelligence’ is counterbalanced by a recent work by Walter Quattrociocchi, where his team shows that

social homogeneity is the primary driver of content diffusion, and one frequent result is the formation of homogeneous, polarized clusters – often called “echo chambers” (Del Vicario, 2016, p.558)

The concrete risk, I argue, is that big data combined with such ‘eco chambers’ create a multitude of small, unconnected worlds where information is just repeated rather than shared. In turn, this drive a stark polarization, as Julia exemplifies in her recent blog post referring to the New Yorker’s article “Does Trump’s Rise Mean Liberalism’s End?”.

Last week, I had the opportunity of quickly drafting such concepts in a video about the post-factual world for Al Jazeera’s The Listening Post:

If polarization is quicker to grasp by the audience and generates more engagement, then media (including Social Media) will naturally tend to exacerbate it – or at least follow it – to drive more advertising revenues. Combining it with the possibility of carefully targeting the audience thanks to big data, this means there is a stark risk of intensifying our eco chambers and being less – if not at all – permeable to new, challenging ideas.

“Facebook is the biggest nation in the world and we have a dictator,” said recently Peter Sunde, co-founder of the controversial file-sharing site ‘The Pirate Bay’. He then refers to the German Cancellor allegedly talking with Facebook’s founder about anti-immigration posts – and the theoretical possibility of manipulating them: “We send major leaders of Europe to ask him to stop interfering with our local culture. How did we end up in a situation like this?”.

Even if I don’t personally share Sunde’s apocalyptic view, as a journalist I do recognize that big data can easily be turned into a powerful censorship – and even a more subtle, invisible auto-censorship – tool. At the same time, as Julia’s posts started to show, big data also include a myriad of concrete, positive applications – in particular for the Development field – which I will analyse in the next post. In the meantime, as usual, feel free to break my own ‘eco chamber’ and please do challenge my views!

/I


References:

Lilleker, D. (2008). Key Concepts in Political Communications. London: SAGE Publications

Del Vicario, M., Bessi, A., Zollo, F., Petroni, F., Scala, A., & Caldarelli, G., Quattrociocchi, W. (2016). The spreading of misinformation online. Proceedings Of The National Academy Of Sciences, 113(3), 554-559.

Scott, M. (2014). Media and Development. London: Zed Books

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1 comment

  1. Social media echo-chambers creating greater polarization cannot take all the credit for Donald Trump’s rise, unfortunately.