Marshall's Thoughts

The Bubbles that Govern the Public Sphere

Aishi Basu

Since the pandemic in 2021 fostered social isolation, the role of telecommunications in the dissemination of information has gained newfound importance. At the same time, the increased dependence on social media platforms has been generating ‘epistemic bubbles’, commonly known as echo chambers, where information is selectively disseminated to reinforce one’s own beliefs and values. This has resulted in increased polarisation and fragmentation. One of the most prominent examples of the power of bubbles is the Cambridge Analytica controversy, where the consulting company allegedly harvested personal data about Facebook users to target vulnerable groups and sway their voting patterns.1 Experts are concerned that the ability of algorithms to manipulate and personalise the acquisition of knowledge may propagate the spread of misinformation, hinder individual liberty, and distort political discourse, plunging society into an era of post-truth. In this article, I will consider the ramifications of the various echo chambers that have arisen and suggest methods to mitigate these bubbles.

While social media channels intend to mitigate world conflict by connecting and catering to people of diverse perspectives and backgrounds, it is unfortunately the case that these platforms are used for misguided purposes. For instance, ultranationalist Buddhists used Facebook to provoke violence against ethnic minorities in Myanmar which led to over 650,000 Rohingyas fleeing to Bangladesh.2 According to Marzuki Darusman from the UN, Facebook ‘substantially contributed to the level of acrimony and dissension’3 by allowing the dissemination of propaganda and threats, ultimately resulting in ethnic cleansing. In Obama’s farewell address,4 he sheds light on how filter bubbles have incited a crisis of democracy due to the apathy of many Americans in civic life which restricts discourse about human right issues such as immigration and abortion. This stems from the fact that individuals can intentionally restrict differing viewpoints by blocking others on social media or indulging in certain news outlets which narrowing their perspective. People often retreat into their epistemic bubbles to feel more secure in their beliefs due to confirmation bias which subsequently breeds intellectual and ideological isolationism. A prominent instance of the same is the distrust that several Americans have in public institutions has incited hatred and violence; for instance, the protests at the nation’s capital after President Trump denied the electoral result was an instance of authority worship that supressed national spirit and social cohesion.

The ‘Social Dilemma’ documents how filter bubbles created by social media algorithms enforce a positive feedback loop that can lead to the misperception that individuals share a common political belief. According to Eli Parson’s The Filter Bubble,5 filter bubbles are characterized as ‘unique universes of information’ engineered by algorithms to cultivate a mini world tailored to an individual’s preferences and behavioural patterns. Parson conceptualises a tripartite dynamic that governs our interaction with media. Firstly, filter-bubbles are one of a kind, implying that every individual is alone in their bubble. Secondly, individuals are often unaware that they are in a specific bubble, as they do not have access to criteria used to create their bubble. Thirdly, the creation of bubbles is involuntary – a result of participating in a social media ecosystem. A salient issue is when social media bubbles disseminate misinformation, misleading those trapped in bubbles. Most strikingly, given the recent pandemic, are vaccine misinformation bubbles on social media that are propagated by anti-vaxxers.6 Spreading misinformation during a global crisis can severely imperil public health, especially to those who are immunocompromised. Nonetheless, it is important to realise that bubbles, although recently popularised by social media, have existed and influenced paradigms of human experiences though out history, through education, science, and culture.

Political leaders typically grow up in affluent and privileged communities, in elitist bubbles, making them insensitive to the plight of impoverished majority. Most shockingly, 30 of 57 British Prime Ministers to date were educated at the University of Oxford and 58% of UK cabinet ministers attended fee-paying schools.7 During the pandemic, then Prime Minister Boris Johnson, an Oxford graduate, attempted to withdraw a free school meal programme, possibly causing a hunger crisis among children from low-income communities.8 Fee-paying schools mirror elitist bubbles that act as engines of privilege, cultivating a culture of ignorance and exclusion among political figures. This leads to public policy-making that widens wealth and income inequalities. Since social hierarchies perpetuate across generations, it is difficult to mitigate these bubbles and reverse their ramifications.

Furthermore, independent journalism plays a vital role in critiquing politicians and educating the public – a pillar of democracy. In countries where authoritarianism prevails, Orwellian governments may restrict an entire nation’s access to global communication systems. For instance, the fundamentalist Iranian government repeatedly cut off Internet in many parts of the country to reduce protests after Mahasa Amini’s death.9 Another instance of such extreme censorship in North Korea where all media outlets are controlled by the government – a gruesome violation of human rights. The influence of power and politics in scientific disciplines is surprising, especially considering the objectivity of research. In medicine, the physician bubble historically was white men because of cultural prejudices, eventually cultivating an industry-standard of a ‘white male’ patient. Physicians’ focus on Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich Democracies (WEIRD) groups has restricted the applicability of medical solutions to marginalised communities.10 Notably, the pulse oximeter ‘sees’ blood by passing light through skin.11 As this technology were initially calibrated for white skin, the device produces distorted images and errors for non-white communities. Clearly, this perpetuates systemic issues like healthcare inequalities.

Furthermore, scientific committees often misuse research gatekeeping, a practice to maintain research accuracy, to bubbles that exclude novel research to maintain the status quo. This is an instance of the ‘soldier mindset’, a phenomenon that induces scientists to behave with confirmation bias and rationalise against disconfirming evidence. In 2012, biologist Patricia Gowaty performed replication experiments with fruit flees that disputed Bateman’s renowned principle of sexual selection. Yet, Gowaty’s research is not shared outside of specialised gender study departments while Bateman’s principle is still accepted by esteemed universities like Oxford.12Thus, science sometimes mirrors an ‘echo chamber’13 as new information is actively discredited. This ‘soldier mindset’ provokes close-mindedness within the scientific community, limiting innovation and increasing falsehood.

In conclusion, bubbles are pervasive and inevitable in our lives. It is our duty recognize the protean bubbles that we may be trapped in, recognise our biases, and look beyond – seek to understand the experiences and perspectives of others. With regards to social media, some are concerned that we are headed towards a post-truth era filled with fake news and propaganda. To burst social media bubbles, political leaders, institutions, and the public must collaborate and establish new regulations surrounding the use of algorithms and restrict the spread of disinformation, thereby promoting social cohesion.

  1. Reuters (2018): Factbox: Who is Cambridge Analytica and what did it do?
  2. Stjernfelt & Lauritzen (2019): Distortion of the Public Sphere
  3. Aljazeera (2018): UN: Facebook had a ‘role’ in Rohingya genocide
  4. Lander and Michael (2017)
  5. Pariser (2012)
  6. BMJ (nd.): Should we criminalise those who spread misinformation about vaccines?
  7. LSE Blog (2014): Elites and influence in the UK and Ireland: A new set of indices overcomes the difficulties in comparing elite formation systems
  8. BBC (2020): School meals: Boris Johnson refuses to move on school meal vouchers
  9. 10 Countries Where VPNs Are Illegal.
  10. Hamilton et al (2020): Weird Bodies: Mismatch, Medicine and Missing Diversity
  11. Boston Review (2022): How a Popular Medical Device Encodes Racial Bias
  12. Gross (2022): Femenist Science is Not an Oxymoron
  13. Conversational Leadership (nd.): Filter Bubbles, Epistemic Bubbles and Echo Chambers

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This week's thought was by Aishi Basu

Aishi Basu is a 1st year Economist undergraduate at Pembroke College. As a research analyst at the Marshall Society, she is interested in analysing complex sociopolitical issues from an economic perspective.

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