BCM 312

Bubbles and Brexit

A significant worry some people have about filter bubbles is whether they can affect the way people vote. The most concern comes during election periods and other major events that contribute to democracy. One such event was the Brexit vote in the UK.

During the build-up to the referendum, there was heavy campaigning from both the Leave and the Remain supporters. As someone who supported the Remain side of the argument, I did find myself reading articles that were more negative about leaving the EU. The CEO of Twitter, Jack Dorsey, commented on his company’s use of filter bubbles, saying that Twitter needs to work on preventing filter bubbles. He also stated that he believes filter bubbles on Twitter impacted how followers of specific accounts viewed the referendum.

“Because most people are following the Vote Leave account and the Vote Leave people, we are not giving them the tools to even have an opportunity to break down the filter bubble”

Only seeing content that is positively related to your beliefs is problematic for several reasons. One reason that is less discussed is that many people in a bubble don’t realise how popular an opposing opinion may be. For me, it didn’t seem likely that the Leave campaign would win the referendum despite know how much advertising they were doing. I didn’t think Brexit was possible because I didn’t know of anyone in my circle of friends who thought it was a good idea to leave the EU.

A critical study was conducted by Del Vicario et al., addressing the emergence of a political divide on Facebook. Focusing on UK related Facebook pages, the article found users confining their attention on pages that posted in line with their ideologies. This division created two separate communities during Brexit campaigning. The study compared the online behaviours of over one million users and concluded that selective exposure and filter bubbles both played a role in these behaviours. The authors also found that emotions users encounter on Facebook do influence our own emotions, which affects our political stances when the posts relate to events like Brexit.

Evidence has also surfaced recently that Cambridge Analytica worked for the Leave campaign during the referendum, which is hugely problematic due to the political scandal caused by Cambridge Analytica. Four pro-Brexit campaigners also paid a collective £2.7 million to AggregateIQ, a data mining and analysing company similar to Cambridge Analytica. An investigation by Facebook Ireland found that AggregateIQ ran targeted ads for Vote Leave and BeLeave using the same data set.

There is not a lot of empirical research into whether filter bubbles played a role in the outcome of the Brexit vote. But the AggregateIQ ads and the study by Del Vicario et al. are suggestive of this idea.

Photo by Randy Colas on Unsplash

Del Vicario, M., Zollo, F., Caldarelli, G., Scala, A., & Quattrociocchi, W. 2017, ‘Mapping social dynamics on Facebook: The Brexit debate’, Social Networks, vol. 50, pp. 6-16.

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