Social media experience relies on a series of dopamine rushes. Amidst the visually appealing graphics and the flood of information feeding confirmation bias, it is easy to lose bearings. This explains the sneaky nature of filter bubbles — they appear transparent, but entrap; they float, but drown opinions; and if popped, they make noises difficult to navigate. Filter bubbles shape the online experience as users access ads and content that is tailored to their preference history. Everything —ranging from the ranking of search engine results to recommended posts —is unique to the user’s level of engagement with particular subjects.
This filtered and personalised online experience becomes especially problematic in the context of electoral decision-making, as voters get trapped in bubbles of social media posts that validate their pre-existing worldviews. Users become subject to campaign-related content based on algorithms that track their political leanings. This can influence the ability of voters to make informed choices, as filter bubbles will try to impede their exposure to the different perspectives of opposing candidates.
THE 2016 FILTRATION
The 2016 U.S. presidential election is testimony to the power of such online campaigns, as Donald Trump apparently succeeded in reinforcing the beliefs of his supporters and won over the majority of undecided, or swing voters.
According to Ballotpedia, Mr. Trump’s victory pivoted on electoral votes in three key swing states — Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. All three, previously considered as likely blue states, were part of Mr. Trump’s massive social media campaign across platforms such as Twitter and Facebook. The election boiled down to a number of undecided voters who were either persuaded to vote for Mr. Trump at the last minute or chose not to vote at all. This calls for the study of the role of filter bubbles among swing voters, as they may become the determining factor of the 2020 election as well.
First, do swing voters even have filter bubbles to begin with? After all, they are supposedly neutral and devoid of strong preferences for either of the two parties. In addition to choosing between the Republican and Democratic candidates, swing voters wonder whether to vote at all. This is especially pertinent among marginalised minorities, who are presumably liberal but dissatisfied with the particular candidate’s policies. But regardless, swing voters (particularly those who lean towards other independent candidates) do have policy preferences that shape their social media experience. Thus, even the swing vote is not immune to the biases of filter bubbles.
Studies suggest that Mr. Trump permeated the swing voters’ filter bubbles by sharing tweets and provocative ads against his opponents to trigger an emotional response. But the users’ data leaked for his targeted ads ultimately led to the unravelling of the Cambridge Analytica scandal. This paved the way for his opponent, Hillary Clinton’s, online strategy of discrediting Mr. Trump by emphasising his role in the data-mining scandal. However, with the majority of Ms. Clinton’s supporters being active on social media, Mr. Trump’s victory also centered on his ability to appeal to voters that rely on news media and other offline sources of information. Thus, swing voters who are less active on social media were probably persuaded by television campaigns or the provocative posts they encountered during their limited surfing of the web.
Another factor that influenced Mr. Trump’s victory was the misinformation within filter bubbles. Swing voters swaying towards Ms. Clinton may have refrained from voting because their filter bubbles convinced them of a Democratic victory. Additionally, studies suggest that Trump supporters shared more fake news than Clinton supporters, thus winning over swing votes on questionable grounds.
BACK TO 2020
Although Democrat candidate Joe Biden is currently leading the polls, a recent Ipsos/Reuters poll suggests that roughly 11 per cent of registered voters are still undecided. However, increased polarisation has nearly halved the number of swing voters this year. Nevertheless, Mr. Trump’s 2016 victory has spurred a more rigorous campaign by the Democrats this time around. With the Obamas using social media to encourage everyone to register to vote and explicitly speaking out against Mr. Trump during the Democratic National Convention, Mr. Biden seems to be turning to social media influencers and strong personalities to convey his message.
This year’s Democratic campaign targets a key demographic i.e. swing voters who did not vote for either candidate in the 2016 elections. By simply encouraging people to vote, instead of influencing who to vote for, the online campaign arguably transcends the limitations of filter bubbles; although preventing voter suppression and appealing to marginalised communities to vote could win more Democratic points. Swing voters can still become persuaded by Mr. Trump's rhetoric but are likely to get exposed to Democrats encouraging voter registration as well. While this does not necessarily make the 2020 swing voter more neutral by exposing them to both sides of the election, it could make them relatively informed to understand the stakes of this election.
Moreover, social media giants, such as Facebook, are stepping in to mitigate the harm of filter bubbles by removing misinformation and fake news around political campaigns. Facebook has also decided to stop displaying new political ads, a week prior to the election. However, its founder, Mark Zuckerberg, was also recently criticised for not cracking down on Mr. Trump’s hate speech around the Black Lives Matter protests earlier this year.
Ultimately, filter bubbles cannot be prevented altogether. But they can be popped and reconfigured once in a while if users engage in healthy online debates and become open to different perspectives. So far, the 2020 election seems to have a promising influence on swing voters by curbing trolls and online bots. This can help us move towards becoming aware of our filtered experiences while also protecting ourselves from the filter bubble trap.
- While social media experience will consistently try to confine users to filter bubbles, by becoming wary of misinformation and remaining open to opposing perspectives, filter bubbles can be made more informed and less biased. Users can expand their world view by ignoring targeted ads through adblockers, periodically clearing browser history and seeking and confronting content they do not agree with.
- Voters must veer away from the internet and seek to inform themselves better through neutral print and TV media. While it is difficult to find content that is truly neutral, biases can be minimised by becoming wary of strong rhetoric and unverified news.
- Swing voters can benefit from well-known social media personalities encouraging people to vote, as they may become more aware of the stakes involved in this election. At the same time, social media platforms should continue working towards combating fake news around the election period.