The Social Media Echo Chamber in the Post-Factual Age


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Brexit means Brexit,” said new British Prime Minister Theresa May as she took office, keen to stress that her government will respect the outcome of the historic referendum. The nation is now in a kind of suspended animation—the U.K. is technically still a member of the European Union (EU) until the decision is taken to trigger Article 50 of the Treaty of Lisbon, which outlines the procedure for leaving the EU.

Once the Article 50 button is pressed, the U.K. will have 2 years to negotiate an exit deal—although a longer time frame is possible if all parties agree. May said that she won’t trigger Article 50 before the end of the year. So, the U.K.’s Brexit ministers are no doubt working fiendishly behind the scenes to get to a grip on the task they have been charged with. In terms of the day-to-day lives of all U.K. citizens, little, if anything, seems to have changed—for now.

There is plenty to consider in the post-Brexit world for digital content: competition, data privacy, and taxation. The European Commission (EC) released a raft of proposals for copyright reform, which—according to Andrus Ansip, EC’s VP for the digital single market—will “ensure that more content will be available, transforming Europe’s copyright rules in light of a new digital reality. Europe’s creative content should not be locked-up, but it should also be highly protected, in particular to improve the remuneration possibilities for our creators.”

Content strategists may be wise to consider some uncomfortable questions about the role of social media during the referendum campaign. According to a survey conducted just before the nation went to the polls, 26% of people used social networks to share and receive information about the referendum in the run-up to polling day; 24% said that social media helped enhance their understanding of the issues connected with the referendum.

The outcome of the referendum was extremely close—52% voting for Leave and 48% for Remain—but this proximity masks strongly polarized voting patterns, breaking down along demographic lines. Young people were much more likely to vote Remain, while older people were more likely to vote Leave. Areas in which more residents had university degrees skewed sharply to Remain. The highest income areas all chose to Remain, while the lowest income areas voted to Leave. Metropolitan centers such as London were for Remain, while rural areas opted overwhelmingly for Leave.

Although many people said that social media was important to them as a source of information on the issues, I wonder how balanced a view this provided. It’s reasonable to assume that most people’s social media graph skews to their own demographic, whether by age, education level, region, or economic status—or perhaps all of these. The echo-chamber effect is likely to have been in full force, with most people only seeing self-reinforcing material in their timelines and possibly even search results.

During the campaign, claims from both sides were subjected to impartial, rigorous, and balanced assessment by Full Fact, the U.K.’s independent fact-checking charity. Full Fact is a small organization, but its profile was high during the campaign, with celebrities such as Andy Murray and J.K. Rowling praising its operation. Despite this, facts were in short supply prior to the vote.

It was always going to be difficult for the Remain side—with its rational appeals and economic arguments—to counter the fear, uncertainty, and doubt presented by the Leave camp, which increasingly focused on concerns around immigration. A week before voting day, marketing expert Mark Ritson noted that “[t]he Leave campaign is winning the all-important emotional argument on Brexit.” In his view, the decision “will come down to … who can play the emotional advantages better than the other.”

Whatever side of the argument someone was on, the votes have been cast, and the politicians must get on with delivering an outcome. The legal and regulatory framework that will eventually apply for content owners in the U.K. is yet to be determined—but for those using content to persuade and influence, the lessons learned from the bruising and rowdy political campaigns are clear to see.   


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