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How to burst your social media bubble

Many are arguing that "filter bubbles" on social media are blinding us to the world around us. Here's how to pop yours. 

For many on the left, the election win of Donald Trump came as a supreme shock. In the last few days, experts have tried to explain this, and a narrative - outside of the errors made by pollsters - has emerged.

According to popular opinion, we are now living in a "filter bubble" on social media that shelters us from views outside of our own. We connect with people with similar views, and block, delete, or ignore those who are different, whilst social media's own algorithms make sure we repeatedly see only what we want to see.

Whether or not this bubble in some way caused the election of Trump is up for debate. What is clear, however, is that it made many of us blind to the world around us. We first became aware of this after Brexit, but now it is clearer than ever before. Social media allows unprecented access to millions of viewpoints, yet we are not taking advantage of this. It is easier than ever to know your enemy, and in order for democracy to thrive, it is important that we pop our filter bubbles now. Here's how. 

Hide your Facebook Activity Log

You may have noticed that Facebook often tells you what your Friends have recently "Liked". This is unfortunate because it invites judgement from others. In order to see more conservative news on your Timeline, you might have to "Like" certain pages or stories that you don't actually agree with. To avoid causing a false representation of yourself, you can stop Facebook from showing your friends what you've Liked by hiding your Activity Log. Unfortunately, when it comes to stories you've Liked, you will have to do this on a post-by-post basis, but you can hide Pages you've Liked using this tutorial.

"Like" Pages you don't agree with 

Now that you've protected your public persona, go ahead and Like the news sites you don't normally get your news from - including those which surface fake news. If you are particularly sensitive to things popping up on your Timeline that you don't agree with, you can use the Wall Street Journal's Blue Feed, Red Feed to get a general perspective on what is happening on the conservative side of Facebook. 

Be prepared to get uncomfortable

There is no point proceeding any further with popping your bubble if you are not prepared to see things you don't want to see and ask questions you don't want to ask. But remember: just because you see and acknowledge both sides of an argument doesn't mean you are giving them equal weight. For example, over the last few days, liberals will have seen a video of white children shouting "Build the wall", whilst conservatives saw a video of a group of people attacking a Trump supporter (warning: graphic). Acknowledging that the latter exists doesn't mean buying into a simplistic, "We're both as bad as each other narrative", it just means understanding the world around you better. 

Fact-check everything before you share it

When it comes to the fake news that has been disseminated around the election, conservatives get a lot of the heat. However, many liberals have shared an false Trump quote, claiming he said, "If I were to run, I'd run as a Republican. They're the dumbest group of voters in the country" in 1998. It takes a single moment to Google something like this before you share it. When it comes to videos, we often believe that because we can see something happening, it is true, but Snopes is an excellent source for verifying the real stories behind footage

For images, read our guide to identifying fake images online

Create an "alt-account"

Twitter users can create a second, anonymous account in order to follow users or pages which they disagree with, and therefore avoid cluttering up their own feeds or putting themselves in danger. You can also create Lists of people so you don't have to follow them but can still see what they are saying. 

Re-add your racist Friends

Over the course of the presidential election, many people have been blocking or unfriending one another on social media. Resist the urge. If someone is disgustingly racist or sexist and it distresses you to see them on your feed, you can hide them from your timeline but check into their page every so often to see what they are saying. On Twitter, you can use the quality filter to avoid abusive messages, but - if you are up to it - you can search your own handle in the searchbar to see what people are saying about you. If you aren't sensitive about seeing things, don't block or unfriend anyone just because their political views are different from yours. It's sort of not what democracy is about. 

Do not fall prey to the ad-hominem fallacy

Just because something has been shared by Jimmy, the three-toothed racist from your primary school, doesn't mean it is immediately wrong. Investigate and fact check everything you see, and don't just dismiss it because of the source it comes from. 

Visit r/the_donald

This subreddit is one of the largest bases of Trump supporters on the internet, and can provide you with interesting insights into others' thoughts and plans. For example, the writer Siyanda Mohutsiwa realised that Trump supporters were telling one another to hide their affiliations, therefore blinding the left to the reality of Trump's support. 

Subscribe to an array of subreddits

Reddit is the self-described "front page of the internet" and you really can find anything and everything on there. Subscribe to r/Labour and r/UnitedKingdom to keep up to date, but also subscribe (or check in on) the anti-feminist r/TheRedPill and r/The_Donald.

Visit 4Chan's /pol/ board

If you thought The Donald subreddit was the worst place on the internet, boy, oh boy, you thought wrong. The forum 4Chan's /pol/ - politically incorrect - board is a hub of the most vile racist, sexist, and every-other-ist perspectives on the internet. If you can handle it, it's worth a look. 

Challenge your Friends and Followers 

And not in the traditional Holier-Than-Thou way. Tell people if something they've shared is fake, let people know if their 140 take has simplified an issue, and be prepared to admit that issues are much, much more nuanced than statuses and tweets allow room for. Admit when you don't know what you're talking about. Be a lone voice against popular opinion. Make each other think. Perhaps this is the hardest of all the steps, but it is undoubtedly the most valuable. Above all, be prepared to admit when you are wrong. 

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.

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Clickbaiting terror: what it’s like to write viral news after a tragedy

Does the viral news cycle callously capitalise on terrorism, or is it allowing a different audience to access important news and facts?

On a normal day, Alex* will write anywhere between five to ten articles. As a content creator for a large viral news site, they [Alex is speaking under the condition of strict anonymity, meaning their gender will remain unidentified] will churn out multiple 500-word stories on adorable animals, optical illusions, and sex. “People always want to read about sexuality, numbers of sexual partners, porn habits and orgasms,” says Alex. “What is important is making the content easily-digestible and engaging.”

Alex is so proficient at knowing which articles will perform well that they frequently “seek stories that fit a certain template”. Though the word “clickbait” conjures up images of cute cat capers, Alex says political stories that “pander to prejudices” generate a large number of page views for the site. Many viral writers know how to tap into such stories so their takes are shared widely – which explains the remarkably similar headlines atop many internet articles. “This will restore your faith in humanity,” could be one; “This one weird trick will change your life…” another. The most cliché example of this is now so widely mocked that it has fallen out of favour:

You’ll never believe what happened next.

When the world stops because of a tragedy, viral newsrooms don’t. After a terrorist attack such as this week’s Manchester Arena bombing, internet media sites do away with their usual stories. One day, their homepages will be filled with traditional clickbait (“Mum Sickened After Discovery Inside Her Daughter’s Easter Egg”, “This Man’s Blackhead Removal Technique Is A Complete And Utter Gamechanger”) and the next, their clickbait has taken a remarkably more tragic tone (“New Footage Shows Moment Explosion Took Place Inside Manchester Arena”, “Nicki Minaj, Rihanna, Bruno Mars and More React to the Manchester Bombing”).

“When a terrorist event occurs, there’s an initial vacuum for viral news,” explains Alex. Instead of getting reporters on the scene or ringing press officers like a traditional newsroom, Alex says viral news is “conversation-driven” – meaning much of it regurgitates what is said on social media. This can lead to false stories spreading. On Tuesday, multiple viral outlets reported – based on Facebook posts and tweets – that over 50 accompanied children had been led to a nearby Holiday Inn. When BuzzFeed attempted to verify this, a spokesperson for the hotel chain denied the claim.

Yet BuzzFeed is the perfect proof that viral news and serious news can coexist under the same roof. Originally famed for its clickable content, the website is now home to a serious and prominent team of investigative journalists. Yet the site has different journalists on different beats, so that someone writes about politics and someone else about lifestyle or food.

Other organisations have a different approach. Sam* works at another large viral site (not Buzzfeed) where they are responsible for writing across topics; they explains how this works:  

“One minute you're doing something about a tweet a footballer did, the next it's the trailer for a new movie, and then bam, there's a general election being called and you have to jump on it,” they say.

Yet Sam is confident that they cover tragedy correctly. Though they feel viral news previously used to disingenuously “profiteer” off terrorism with loosely related image posts, they say their current outlet works hard to cover tragic news. “It’s not a race to generate traffic,” they say, “We won't post content that we think would generate traffic while people are grieving and in a state of shock, and we're not going to clickbait the headlines to try and manipulate it into that for obvious reasons.”

Sam goes as far as to say that their viral site in fact has higher editorial standards than “some of the big papers”. Those who might find themselves disturbed to see today’s explosions alongside yesterday’s cats will do well to remember that “traditional” journalists do not always have a great reputation for covering tragedy.

At 12pm on Tuesday, Daniel Hett tweeted that over 50 journalists had contacted him since he had posted on the site that his brother, Martyn, was missing after the Manchester attack. Hett claimed two journalists had found his personal mobile phone number, and he uploaded an image of a note a Telegraph reporter had posted through his letterbox. “This cunt found my house. I still don't know if my brother is alive,” read the accompanying caption. Tragically it turned out that Martyn was among the bomber's victims.

Long-established newspapers and magazines can clearly behave just as poorly as any newly formed media company. But although they might not always follow the rules, traditional newspapers do have them. Many writers for viral news sites have no formal ethical or journalistic training, with little guidance provided by their companies, which can cause problems when tragic news breaks.

It remains to be seen whether self-policing will be enough. Though false news has been spread, many of this week’s terror-focused viral news stories do shed light on missing people or raise awareness of how people can donate blood. Many viral news sites also have gigantic Facebook followings that far outstrip those of daily newspapers – meaning they can reach more people. In this way, Sam feels their work is important. Alex, however, is less optimistic.

“My personal view is that viral news does very little to inform people at times like this and that trending reporters probably end up feeling very small about their jobs,” says Alex. “You feel limited by the scope of your flippant style and by what the public is interested in.

“You can end up feeding the most divisive impulses of an angry public if you aren’t careful about what conversations you’re prompting. People switch onto the news around events like this and traffic rises, but ironically it’s probably when trending reporters go most into their shells and into well-worn story formats. It’s not really our time or place, and to try and make it so feels childish.”

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.

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