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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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Forget “digital detoxes”. Spring clean your online life instead

Step one: remove the app on your phone which takes up the most time. 

In 2006, news broke that broke me. The British Heart Foundation unveiled a poster of a blonde girl guzzling a gallon of cooking oil. “What goes into crisps goes into you,” it read, as the charity declared that eating one packet of crisps a day equated to drinking five litres of oil a year.

I gave up crisps that Lent (an admirable act that was somewhat mitigated by devouring a six-pack of McCoy’s on Easter Sunday). Still, despite my continuing pack-a-day habit, the BHF’s statistic has never left me: 365 packets of salt and vinegar crisps are equal to five bottles of Filippo Berio. But other bad habits are harder to comprehend. Last week, I “liked” 36 things on Facebook, wrote ten tweets, and posted five Instagram pictures (two of which were selfies). What effect, if any, has this had on my mental and physical health? How much metaphorical cooking oil am I pouring into my body?

“You really don’t need to worry about the volume of your own social media interactions, based on the average digital user,” the founder of the digital detox specialists Time To Log Off, Tanya Goodin, told me. Goodin says that we “tap, click and swipe” our devices over 2,617 times a day and that the average person will post 25,000 selfies in their life.

Though these statistics seem shocking, what do they mean? What does swiping thousands of times a day do to our minds – or, for that matter, our thumbs? The experts are divided. In 2015, national newspapers spread stories suggesting that using an iPad would damage a toddler’s brain but the research didn’t mention the term “brain damage” once. In fact, as the Guardian pointed out in its debunking, studies produce mixed results: some say iPads help improve child literacy, others say they are distracting.

The studies about adults’ screentime are similarly hard to decipher. Heavy Facebook usage has been linked to depression but there isn’t any apparent cause and effect. Do depressed people use Facebook more, or does Facebook make us depressed? “Internet addiction disorder” (IAD) was a term originally coined as a hoax, but many now see it as a real and treatable problem. Yet it does not feature in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, and experts still struggle to set diagnostic criteria for it. How much internet is too much?

These academic ambiguities haven’t stopped the idea of the “digital detox” taking off. Detoxers refrain from using any electronics for a period of time in the hope that this will improve their mental health and real-world relationships. At the time of writing, if you search for “digital detox” on Instagram, you’ll find 25,945 people talking about their personal attempts. There are pictures of bike rides, sunsets and children playing, each posted – apparently without irony – to extol the virtues of getting off social media and turning off your phone.

Digital detoxing is also big business. Goodin runs workshops, retreats and camps where no electronics are allowed and the daily schedule consists of yoga, walking, swimming and drinking smoothies. The next one, in Italy, costs from £870 per head for a week. A multitude of such camps exist, as well as books, websites and guides on how to detox by yourself. To connect, man, you have to disconnect, you know?

All of this has made me a digital detoxing cynic. I don’t believe I need to switch off my phone to “live” better, because I believe my phone itself contains life. On Reddit, I can speak to strangers living hundreds of thousands of miles away about their lives. On Twitter, I can keep up to date – in real time – with news and events. If I want to learn yoga or make a smoothie, where will I go to find my local gym or the correct strawberry-to-spinach ratio? Technology can even inspire us to “get out more”. Last summer, the gaming app Pokémon Go spurred people to walk 2,000 more steps a day, and I’m willing to bet that brunch sales figures have skyrocketed since the invention of Instagram.

Digital detoxing relies on the vague idea that tech is somehow toxic. Even without scientific studies to back this up, most of us know from our own, anecdotal evidence how spending too much time on our phones can make us feel. We get down if our latest status doesn’t have enough likes, or our eyes hurt after the sixth “EXTREME PIMPLE POPPING” YouTube video in a row. So, at core, digital detoxing isn’t “wrong”: it is merely misguided. Instead of trying to cut out all technology for a week, we should be curbing our existing habits; rather than a digital detox, we should have a digital spring clean.

Delete – or hide – anyone on your Facebook friends list that you wouldn’t talk to in real life. Remove your work email from your phone (or ask your boss for a separate work phone if you absolutely need access). Delete the app that takes up most of your time – be it Facebook, Twitter or YouTube – so that you are forced to get to it manually, through your browser, and therefore become instantly more aware of how many times a day you open it up. Tanya Goodin also advises me to use my phone less at night. Essentially: go mild turkey. If this is too much and you believe you are addicted to your smartphone or laptop, then, of course, you should seek help (speak to your doctor or call the Samaritans on 116 123).

But most of us just need to get smarter about our internet use. Even if scientists proved that technology was damaging our brains, a week-long detox wouldn’t be the cure. Rather, we should focus on our bad personal habits and try to curb them. Do you get into too many arguments online? Do you ignore your partner because you’re staring at a screen? Do you post opinions you regret because you don’t think them through first? These behaviours are problematic – the internet itself isn’t. To control our lives, we shouldn’t switch off: we should get more switched on.

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

This article first appeared in the 06 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Spring Double Issue

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