Who is responsible for “social bubbles” and what is the role of media in shaping them?

Social bubbles are a natural form of human behavior, but they seem to be supported and amplified by new media technologies. But what is the role of traditional, journalistic media in creating or sustaining such bubbles?

Social bubbles are a natural form of human behavior, but they seem to be supported and amplified by new media technologies. But what is the role of traditional, journalistic media in creating or sustaining such bubbles?

Let’s start with the definition. A social bubble denotes the tendency of us humans to seek out similarity in our connections across all areas of life – in our friendships, love life, and work environments. This feature – known by social network scholars as “homophily” – is quite natural from the perspective of evolution and information processing. In an evolutionary sense, trusting people sharing the same social and spatial context has tended to pay off. In an information processing sense, communicating with people familiar to us is cognitively less demanding – e.g. with those who speak the same language or possess a similar worldview.

While the formation of social bubbles might be understandable in historical or practical terms, the way such bubbles are affecting our lives is changing. While close-knit relational networks used to be the norm, digital technologies such as social media have provided us new means of bridging and reaching across these networks. In fact, while social bubbles used to be sufficiently stable over time, we now live in a society where each individual is engaged in multiple social networks at the same time; and the internet seems to have intensified this phenomenon. Therefore, the concept of a social bubble following the principle of homophily is partially aged.

However, we still form social networks, and our opinions and communication are shaped by those networks, even if they were many. This causes other issues: In the current media environment, when multiple different bubbles clash , tensions arise. A case in point are the political tensions between right and left, or conservative and liberal, which are produced and reproduced across multiple arenas, and are also visible in several social media variables like linking or retweeting behavior. But similar strong oppositions might also be present in more mundane everyday themes, like environmentally friendly consumption (note: link in Finnish) or even heated sports events. It has been suggested that these debates and related polarization are supported and intensified by social media.

Is the journalistic media to blame?

Who is responsible for such a ”clash of bubbles”? Obviously, we all are – including anyone who communicates within and across bubbles. However, the fuel for much of the tension across social spheres are issues in society, and those issues are brought to us often by different types of media organizations. An important question is whether journalistic media has a role to play – if any – in the formation of social bubbles, their maintenance, or perhaps in breaking them down? Are there some mechanisms in the journalistic process that also support polarization?

Media is often portrayed as a neutral information provider—particularly by media actors themselves. From this perspective, media provides news or content, over which consumers of that media form their own opinions within their own social networks. A critical observer might ask whether any media can really take such an idealized form. The content, tone, and style are always selected by someone – whether the process aims for “neutrality” or not. Thus, it is not surprising that there are voices asking and blaming media for selecting certain types of topics or angles, while suppressing others. Thus, while featuring an ideal model of the traditional media, the neutral information provider role is all but easy.

Media can also try to be “polyphonic”, “equal”, or “diverse”. The generous assessment of this is that media provides something for everyone, with a balanced view to all aspects of society. The less generous assessment is that media tries to avoid criticism from everyone but ends up creating a new set of problems. A case in point is false balance, which might arise when media tries to seek out a different perspective to an issue, even if such a perspective were not warranted. However, who is to decide when a different perspective is warranted? Again – the role of the media is not easy.

Media can also be the source of tension across social bubbles or different worldviews. A news story on a controversial topic might include an angle that is known to spark a fight – if not at the dinner table, more likely on Twitter. Some media might even be viewed as being in a “business of bad blood” – giving rise to issues that are particularly divisive and subsequently causing a firestorm on social media. In debated topics, journalistic media typically aims to cover both viewpoints already in the news story, thus reproducing the controversy. One perspective is to say that media is sparking the discussion and setting the agenda by merely providing content, while it is the individuals who interpret and discuss – and fight over – such content. Where lies the responsibility in the end?

Socially embedded and responsible media

Can media contribute to the formation of social bubbles? In a quick assessment, the answer is “yes”. Media is not dislocated from the society but embedded in it. Different media products are consumed by particular social segments, and media is produced to inform but also to entertain those segments. Is it, then, a surprise that in an extreme case people with different political backgrounds consume almost totally different media?

As these examples show, social bubbles are both an elusive as well as an important issue from the perspective of media responsibility. The challenge is that we do not really know what to do with all of this. For instance, the jury is still out regarding to which extent social bubbles matter for topical diversity and interaction across different media platforms, and what is the role of social media technologies in producing them. The role, responsibility, and accountability of journalistic media is even less clear and less discussed. Still, the general tendency has begun to shift towards seeing media as being accountable not only for instrumentally obeying laws and journalistic ethics, but more clearly being responsible for the mental prints (or ‘brainprint’, as media actors say themselves) they create.

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This blog post was inspired by the discussions in a joint seminar organized in June 2021 by Paavo Ritala, Jukka Huhtamäki and Salla-Maaria Laaksonen bringing together three academic research projects MAPS, Media Contradictions and HYTE. The seminar included people from these and other Finnish projects working on different aspects of media responsibility and behavior. We wish to thank all invited participants for the lively discussion.

This post is cross-posted from Media Contradictions.

Text: Paavo Ritala, LUT University & Salla-Maaria Laaksonen, University of Helsinki

Image (cc): Miguel Tejada-Flores @Flickr

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