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Invasion of the Brexit body snatchers

Annie Auerbach
Starling Strategy

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We all need to break out of the digital ‘echo chamber’

When the UK voted to leave the EU this summer, 48% of the country felt shock. They didn’t know anyone who had voted leave, they hadn’t debated it rationally with any of their friends, they hadn’t browsed Twitter streams talking about the benefits of leaving the EU. So who were all these leavers? A Radio 4 programme at the time interviewing bereft young Remainers in Sheffield likened the shock to a real-life version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

All of this amounted to an alienation from the people that surround us, a sense that benign neighbours are actually dark imposters. The problem is they were there all the time. We just never listened to them.

We live in what Suzanne Moore calls a digital ‘echo chamber’ in which our every opinion is reflected back at us by the mass of people we’ve chosen to friend, follow and like.

It’s easy to think that social media means we immerse ourselves in the opinions and interests of a diverse range of people; those who we’d never usually come across IRL. But this is just theory; in reality our digital habits tend towards cultural homophily. We’re more likely to follow like-minded people.

A recent study published in December 2015 in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences seems to prove this. Facebook users seek out stories which align with their own views. The authors of the study said: “Our findings show that users mostly tend to select and share content related to a specific narrative and to ignore the rest. Whether a news item, either substantiated or not, is accepted as true by a user may be strongly affected by how much it coheres with the user’s system of beliefs.”

My perception of truth is determined by whether I like what you're saying

In other words, my perception of truth is determined by whether I like what you’re saying. I’ll share it, if it feels like the kind of thing that could have come out of my own mouth. And this is not just fluffy recommendations. Two in three Facebook users get their news from the platform, according to Pew Research, meaning our understanding of current affairs is driven by whether we relate to the mouthpiece from which it originates. Everything is validated, nothing is challenged.

So it’s our fault. Our digital habits are precluding a truthful and comprehensive understanding of the world.

Except it’s not just our fault. Eli Pariser, author of The Filter Bubble: What the Internet Is Hiding from You, shows it’s not just our use of social media that’s driving our echo chamber. Netflix, Yahoo and Amazon use algorithms to personalise web searches and content, and the side effect is our assumption that what we consume is broadcast when it’s actually narrowcast.

And we become self-fulfilling prophesies, served ever more personalised content until we’re culturally gazing into our own navels.

Which is why those in the Remain camp woke up on Friday 24 June shocked and alienated from their country, surrounded by ‘Brexit Body Snatchers’.

Brands end up telling safe stories that have been told before

We all need to break out of the echo chamber. We should follow people who annoy us, seek out difference and listen to challenge on a personal level.

But this needs to happen at a business level too. Margaret Heffernan, five-time CEO and leadership expert, believes we need to “dare to disagree”. Organisations are filled with people who are afraid of conflict; she notes in surveys of European and American executives that 85% of workers have issues or concerns that they were afraid to raise at work. Instead of thinking of disagreement as conflict, we need to see it as simply thinking. As she puts it, “When we dare to create conflict, we enable ourselves to do our very best thinking."

And brands need to take heed too. As Alan Martin writes in Wired magazine, “We’re insulating ourselves from viewpoints that differ from our own, inadvertently reinforcing our view of the world, and closing our minds to new ideas and experiences."

We become surrounded by familiar content and instinctive narratives versus anything subjective or more uncomfortable. Brands end up telling safe stories that have been told before… or, indeed, simply speaking to themselves.

As brands, as businesses and as people, we need to break out of the echo chambers we surround ourselves with. Our cultural world might not be as cozy, but at least we’ll be out of our comfort zones, listening and engaging, and ready to build bridges rather than walls.