Careful, it’s a jungle out there: how social media can distort political dialogue online

I open a New York Times book review about Quentin Tarantino’s new novel, ‘Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,’ on Instagram, then an article shared by Yahoo Singapore on Facebook about overthrown Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s recent Covid-19 jab; with a ‘ding’ I realize ‘Didi’ is trending on Twitter, given China’s removal of the ride-hailing app — alongside ‘Vin Diesel,’ with over 160K tweets (and mostly organic memes) marking the release of his film Fast and Furious 9. In a single hour, I’d traversed a labyrinth of information — but, now, I close my phone and move on. 

When it comes to social media, out of sight is out of mind. 

At the first breakthrough of an event, a flurry of news articles, tweets, hashtags, and shared content spur rich conversation, as diverse perspectives fill the pages of feeds across different platforms. Yet, the online sphere seems to resemble a content whirlpool over time, with news being filtered out as quickly as it enters the fray. What drives these trends?

The shift of news consumption from print newspapers to social media is significant, with several audience groups logging in to keep up with current affairs. The ubiquity of content available online is unfathomable; from personal musings, professional updates, and polarising opinions, this varied stream of information can be refreshed at any moment. 

Headlines from the mainstream media mix with shared images and videos, creating a distinct experience for users across different online platforms. According to Reuters’ 2021 Digital News Report, “across countries, many of those who use [Facebook] for news say they pick up information incidentally,” and Twitter is perceived to be relatively more news-oriented than other platforms like Instagram, Snapchat, and TikTok.  

These statistics reflect the different motivations that drive social media use. For example, 33% of YouTube users in the United States paid the most attention to ‘mainstream news outlets or journalists’ when using the platform for news — the highest statistic with the most trust compared to other sources. Following closely behind were ‘personalities, social media influencers and celebrities’ capturing 25% of users. In fact, alongside preferences, this highlights the key mechanism of curation. 

Today’s social media user is in the unique position of being both creator and curator of their immediate digital sphere. Unlike the traditional newspaper editor who plays a gatekeeping role, today’s social media users can decide who to follow, what to read, when to share their thoughts, and how to interact with various sources of information. One could be reading about Myanmar’s #1stJulyCoup, or adding to the next trending topic, #FreeBritney — with vastly different implications for society and activism. 

This framework may be freeing, allowing for a diversity of perspectives far beyond traditional media and reinstating the power of decisions back to the consumer: you. Yet, there is an increasing necessity to remain self-reliant – in ensuring that you consume accurate content, stay wary of misinformation, and remain media literate about what’s going on. 

It is immensely empowering — and overwhelming at the same time. 

Despite rich debates that may surround an issue, the trend of users creating smaller bubbles of information in echo chambers can be worrying – especially given the reliance of users for news on the platforms. Studies have shown that we are more likely to interact with like-minded people online, and read news pieces in line with our beliefs and expectations. This confirmation bias can distort political exchanges and open discussions up to misinformation. 

On the other hand, the quick news cycle driven by social media algorithms can also culminate in users experiencing quick disinterest towards singular issues. The viral nature of a news piece may garner increased attention; yet, it can lose popularity just as quickly when newer topics are perceived to have a higher social significance, and/or higher “shareability” by the platform’s algorithms.

It is valuable when online conversations are sparked by real-time events – these discussions remain the pulse behind breaking news. The danger comes about when attention to important news can become quick to waver against the slew of constant updates on platforms. 
I used Google Trends to explore these patterns: ‘breakout’ terms (new queries with the largest increase in search frequency since the last time period) were weighted, with a value of 100 as a relative indicator of peak popularity.

Figure 1 – Interest over time for the term ‘hong kong protest’ over the past 5 years, worldwide

The term ‘hong kong protest’ was added, to determine the incidence of online news searches worldwide over a five years. Figure 1 reflects the highest trend searches occurring over the extradition law passed by the government during the 2019-2020 protests. Although there have been recorded incidents of protests before that period and thereafter, the search popularity for this issue has dwindled significantly, reflecting the viral nature of news when it first hit.

In creating a comparison between specific ‘breakout’ terms, I added the search terms ‘myanmar coup’ and ‘israel palestine conflict’ to compare the incidence of searches since January 2021.

Figure 2 – Interest over time for the ‘breakout’ terms ‘myanmar coup’ and ‘israel palestine conflict’ since Jan 2021, worldwide

Figure 2 reflects the peaks of popularity for each search. The Myanmar military coup started on 1st Feb 2021, with the blue peak indicating increased interest during that period. Although there was a small peak marking the recent pro-democracy protests of 1st June, search interest has fallen over the months – even though the coup and its violent impacts have continued over this period. Although print media continues to report updates from the region consistently, the chart indicates that this trend did not follow through online.

In another example, the Israel-Palestine crisis that occurred on 10th May 2021 follows the red peak on the chart. The virality of this issue is further highlighted by its relatively higher interest (100) than the Myanmar search term (74). Yet, in a similar trend, interest in the crisis has quickly died down – by the end of May, searches on the topic were minimal. Although there may be variations according to the search terms explored, this exemplifies shifting attention patterns in the online news sphere. 
Furthermore, tools like Crowdtangle can be used to track the spread and popularity of topics by presenting the number of post interactions on Facebook. For instance, the Wikipedia page of ousted Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi has been referenced 4,727 times on Facebook so far, as in Figure 3 – and the Facebook pages that have the most interactions with the URL are also shown. In another example, a Reuters article about Apple Daily’s imminent closure dated 23 June 2021 has a total of 4,376 interactions on Facebook, with several public pages hitting high interaction values as in Figure 4. Statistics from other platforms, such as Twitter, Reddit, and Instagram, are available as well.

Figure 3 – Crowdtangle dashboard data for Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi Wikipedia page
Figure 4 – Crowdtangle dashboard data for Reuters’ Apple Daily article

Several other tools allow for the tracking of news topics on social media, including Twitter’s own dashboard application Tweetdeck, currently trending hashtag tracker RiteTag — and Hoaxy, a tool to visualize the spread of information and check facts on Twitter. Yet, it is noteworthy that these programs can only track public data – oftentimes missing the private groups, networks, and information distributed across different platforms. As such, modes of news consumption on social media remain as opaque as they come across transparent.

And ultimately, these interactions harken back to the essential systems distributing content online; the steely machine-learning algorithms embedded in every social media platform. Although you may expect to be the primary curator of your content, algorithms tend to drive many of these preferences. This includes keeping track of your time spent on each page, your interactions with similar (or different) posts — and, most significantly, the amount of advertisement or promotion revenue the platform receives when recommending posts to you. 

According to a 2015 study cited in an article by ‘The Guardian’, “more than 60% of Facebook users are entirely unaware of any curation on Facebook at all, believing instead that every single story from their friends and followed pages appeared in their news feed.” In reality, an algorithm-driven collection of content is presented to every user — serving as another driver of possible distortion online. 

It may be a jungle out there, with disorder and confusion intertwining with social media’s lively debates that we have come to value. Yet, in the age of progress and quick change, the online world may just turn out to be a blessing – if we go in with our eyes wide open.