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What the EU referendum result teaches us about the dangers of the echo chamber

Many students were shocked by the result of the referendum – but should they have been?

As the sun rose on the 24 June – and the result of the referendum became clear – television crews scrambled to capture the kaleidoscopic range of emotions felt by the British public.

Themes began to emerge. For students, dingy union bars were the go-to setting. Dejected, gaunt-faced, and perhaps a little drunk, they stared vacantly at each other, stomaching just a few words: “uncertainty”, “leap into the unknown”, “future stolen”.

In the live media coverage, the 27 per cent of 18-24 year olds who voted Leave were largely conspicuous by their absence. 

The generational divide has been one of the most densely reported statistics in the aftermath of the referendum. It has to be said, the results speak for themselves. The percentage of Leave voters by age group steadily increases from 27 per cent for 18-24 year olds, to 48 per cent for 35-44 year olds, all the way to 60 per cent for 65+ voters. An ageing population and a low turnout among younger voters swung the decision in favour of Leave.

Among students, the result was met with disbelief. Surrounded by an overwhelming majority who shared the same opinion, many students who voted Remain just simply couldn’t believe that so many would vote for Leave; their arguments weren’t taken all that seriously.

In many ways, the total disbelief it caused among some groups smacks of disconnect; both social and generational. And it merits serious concern. What caused it?

Social networks – and echo chambers specifically – might be partly to blame. A study carried out last year, entitled "The spreading of misinformation online", revealed their concerning effects. According to Michela del Vicario, a co-author of the study, echo chambers are "closed environments, inside of which users are not reached by contrasting information".

The study revealed that social networks, by filtering out content the user disagrees with, facilitate the creation of echo chambers. From a commercial perspective, this is unsurprising. Encounter less content you loathe, and you’re less likely to leave.

However the study also showed that this setup caused a “collective framing of narratives that are often biased toward self-confirmation”.

Universities, where free speech is currently a hotly-contested issue, have been viewed as the main arenas for echo chambers, safe spaces, and trigger warnings. In an interview with the student paper, The Oxford Student, earlier this year, the Vice-Chancellor of Oxford University, Louise Richardson, condemned their basic premise: “University is not about being comfortable. A space in which people do not have to confront ideas they find disturbing…I think is inconsistent with university life.”

Despite this, many students – on both sides of the political spectrum – are still unsure where to situate the line between someone’s right to freedom of speech and offence. It’s important though, because if you do cross the line – and voice an opinion not echoed by the authority – you can be virtually ostracised.

Louis Trupia, a second-year student at Oxford University who voted Leave, tells me: “A lot of my friends were very surprised that I supported Leave because, for quite a while, I was fairly quiet about it. Sometimes it wasn’t worth being called a 'casual racist' even if immigration wasn’t one of your concerns about the EU.

“It was only on the day of the referendum itself that some of my friends were willing to openly come out in favour of leaving to avoid a lengthy backlash.”

It is unquestionable that aspects of the Leave campaign were socially noxious. Yet although I voted Remain, I’ve been surprised by how quick others have been to label – both before and after the vote – Leave campaigners “uneducated”, or “xenophobic”. Social networks have been the most common platforms for levelling such accusations, and it inhibited some Leave voters from sharing their views completely; both online and in public.

Perhaps paradoxically, this might have been Remain voters' downfall. Although we can passionately and fervently disagree, we shouldn’t see shaming people into silence as a goal; for many reasons, but most importantly, because it’s detrimental. The “Shy Tory” phenomenon is another case in point. What it does is limit the extent to which we can change others’ opinions. It fosters the sort of disconnect the recent referendum has unearthed.

Deleting or muting people who express political views contrary to your beliefs is symptomatic of this trend. Everyone’s guilty of it; myself included. And while it might provide a quick fix, what underlying effect does it have?

If no social or political activism occurred on social media, any effect would be minimal. But recent years have witnessed the exponential growth in the use of Facebook and Twitter as forums for such debate. Again, there is nothing inherently wrong with this, but when there is an imbalance in representation, there is also risk of unbalanced argument and conclusions.

The danger when it comes to social media activism is that you’re less likely to even encounter those who disagree with you, let alone engage or critique them.

The authors of the study reached similar conclusions. For them, the “disintermediated environment” of echo chambers “can foster confusion about causation, and thus encourage speculation, rumours and mistrust.” The very same “speculation, rumours and mistrust” were rife amongst those on both sides of the referendum debate.

If the result difficult to swallow, Remain voters should bear in mind the reaction of those in the North and Midlands; some of whom were incredulous that their vote to Leave had made a tangible impact. That, if nothing else, highlights the unhealthy nature of public discourse, and an extreme level of social, as well as political, disillusion.

Social media can be a tool for great good, but the way we use it needs to be constantly re-assessed. Echo chambers – preaching to the converted – will do little to heal the divisions of post-Brexit society.