Between Facebook posts, online publications, and Reddit threads, it is overwhelming to begin to imagine the amount of different opinions, ideas, and information a regular internet-user processes in a single day. Consequently, the digital age is heralded for supposedly allowing people to become educated on a broad assortment of topics and form unique opinions. However, some publications such as the CBC and The Guardian have argued that the sharing and gathering of information online, particularly through social media, is largely flawed because it leaves users susceptible to the effects of confirmation bias.
While social media has made it more effective for people to access different ideas and information, the current way in which many people use these websites makes them prey to confirmation bias and actually limits the variety of perspectives that they encounter due to the personalized and insular networks that are created.
Essentially, because of the way information-sharing works on social media—such as the Facebook news feed which mainly shows stories shared or liked by the user’s friends—people end up only finding and absorbing information which validates their own points of view or prior knowledge.
The issue of confirmation bias has become increasingly critical due to the way social media is fundamentally designed. It encourages people to create their own network of friends and peers whom they already have a common link with. Users of social media can actively decide the people, publications, or threads they want to follow on the internet, which in turn determine what kind of posts and information they read on a day to day basis. The natural outcome is that people end up following sources that will provide them with information that confirms their beliefs rather than question them.
This concept actually expands past individuals’ selection of information. Through the like and up-vote systems that exist on Facebook and Reddit, people sharing an opinion can collectively try to bring attention to comments or posts that back-up their own ideas. This system often perpetuates a cycle of linear thinking and self-validation. People naturally associate highly liked comments (which are algorithmically set to appear first) as credible. Even though these comments might provide narrow-minded or even inaccurate perspectives, many readers will take the information that they find on social media as unequivocal, and not feel the need to research further or critically debate the issue.
Consider the unofficial McGill subReddit, for example. Almost every thread containing a controversial issue posesses a very uniform collection of opinions. This issue was perhaps most evident during the women’s-only gym hours controversy last year. While it is understood that for any argument, there will be less-expressed minority perspectives, there was a clear lack of actual discussion or productive information presented in the threads. Instead, it seemed abundantly clear that the main purpose of these threads was for people to validate one another’s collective opinions and pile on ideas and evidence that support their beliefs. Any contradicting ideas are either absent or down-voted to near invisibility.
Social media systems perpetuate bias by making it more difficult for people to share their opinions on controversial issues. In practice, likes and up-votes essentially denote a value on people’s opinions. As a result, people feel more reluctant to share and cultivate their own thoughts in the fear of being dismissed or even harassed by the masses.