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Against a backdrop of tumultuous political events such as the election of Donald Trump and Brexit, worries abound that political polarisation is increasing. A conventional wisdom has emerged that social media is fuelling this process by producing ‘echo chambers’ whereby people view only sources that confirm their pre-existing beliefs and are insulated from opposing perspectives, making them susceptible to groupthink and radicalisation.

The concern over echo chambers has been compounded by findings of ‘gated’ online communities. Examination of Twitter discussions on US politics has found that users on the platform are, by and large, exposed to views in accordance with their own. It seems also that those who try to bridge the ideological gap between different groups pay a penalty in terms of influence in debates and endorsement from other users; in other words, you get more attention on Twitter by being partisan.

The think tank Demos analysed the behaviour of politically engaged Twitter users in the UK. They found that supporters of political parties tend to interact amongst themselves, share news consistent with their ideological position, and that “certain topics are much more prevalently discussed by certain political groups than by others”, indicating divides not just in terms of media outlets but content as well. According to Demos’ report, such groups “reinforce ideological positions”. Considering that during the 2016 referendum campaign only around 10% of tweets by Remain supporters were sent to Leave supporters and vice-versa, it is perhaps not hard to see why.

Echo chambers have been observed on Facebook, too. Quantitative analysis of users in the US and Italy shows the emergence of “closed, non-interacting communities” centred around different narratives – in this case, science and conspiracy theories. The effect of these groups was found to be powerful. The more active users were in the groups, the more they interacted with others of similar beliefs. When researchers posted deliberately false information in these groups, this served only to reinforce the conviction of the echo chamber and harden attitudes further.

This phenomenon seems to apply to the Brexit debate as well. Researchers found the spontaneous emergence of two distinct Facebook communities, with users’ attention confined to specific news outlets. As a result, the same topics were both presented and perceived differently in each echo chamber.

But if echo chambers exist, how worried should we be about them? Recent research puts their importance into question. One issue with the narrative around echo chambers is that many studies confirming their existence only take one platform into account. Intuition might suggest that this is an unrealistic portrayal of how people consume media. Indeed, UK internet users look at an average of four different media sources and have accounts across three different social media platforms.

Not only do most people shop around for information online, but a diverse media diet and political interest have been shown to be strong predictors of behaviours that help avoid getting trapped in an echo chamber. Based on these findings, the Oxford Internet Institute concluded that only a small minority – around 8% of British adults – have sufficiently low political interest and media diversity to be at significant risk of being caught in an echo chamber.

Another interesting finding is that although articles found through social media are associated with greater ideological segregation than other channels such as direct browsing, social media is also associated with greater exposure to opposing viewpoints. Underlining this insight is the fact that while only 21.6% of UK social media users claim to often agree with the political content they see, a much greater proportion – 32.3% – claim to often disagree. The upshot is that although echo chambers are real, their effects are confined to a minority of social media users. In other words, most social media users are not cut off from other viewpoints.

So, far from being an echo chamber, for many people social media is a way to broaden their media horizons. The most worrying aspect of this is that despite increased exposure to opposing views on social media, political polarisation can still deepen. The suggestion is that the problem lies not so much with digital echo chambers as good old-fashioned psychological biases such as the ‘backfire effect’ – our tendency to dig our heels in even further when presented with evidence contradicting our views.

While echo chambers are out there, then, it seems that in fact they only ensnare a small segment of social media users and don’t present a major threat. If we are to find a solution to our polarised political climate, perhaps we’d do better to look in the mirror than at our feeds.

Sam Robinson is a Research Assistant at Bright Blue.