“There’s a lot of talk about the role social media plays in bringing society together but I think in fact quite the opposite is true. Social media seems to push people into silos,” said Greste on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
It’s an interesting opinion for him to hold, considering how involved social media was in his own campaign for freedom, as well as how instrumental it was to the revolution of the country in which he was working when he was arrested.
The reality of social media echo chambers are a little more complicated.
“We did a study that looked at media habits and how those are tied to political polarisation,” says the Pew Research Center’s Director of Journalism Research Amy Mitchell, “And what we found was really in today’s society true silos, if you will, really don’t exist, that most people rely on an array of media even if that media isn’t directly sought out.”
“Most people turned to at least five different outlets for political news in the past week according to this survey. About one in three responded that many of their close friends don’t share their political views,” says Mitchell. She noted that this was reverberated in social media, and that their study found “the majority are seeing views that are not in line with their own.”
Mitchell adds that people who consistently aligned with liberal or conservative values (this being a US study), did tend to keep to their own, but: “Just relying on one particular source, whether it’s your friend or your group of people in social media, is not evidenced in the data here.”
Also at the Pew Research Center, Lee Rainie, Director of Internet, Science and Technology, says people’s networks are bigger than they were compared with generations before, and are in fact more diverse.
“You’re more likely to have someone from a different social class in your network than your parents were, you’re more likely to have someone a different age in your network than your parents were, you’re more likely to have people who live in different communities - so the very broad social trends here are actually pushing the boundaries of social networks.”
“[But] there’s actually data pushing in both directions [concerning ‘silos’]. Some of it confirms the idea, some of it disputes it. And so the answer is it’s complicated and it depends,” says Rainie.
Perhaps rather this is a perennially human issue, not one confined to the web.
Peter Greste does have a point, however, that if the advent of social media is causing a loss of ‘serendipitous’ news, then society will suffer as a result, says Rainie.
“One of the great services that all traditional organisations have performed for their cultures and their communities is serendipitous encounters with information, so you know, you open your front page and you see something that you’ve never even thought about before but now all of a sudden you’re engaged.”
Rainie says it is well evidenced that these serendipitous encounters with new information are good for culture and add to a diversity of perspective, “And so to the degree that traditional media are suffering now, and maybe not covering as many things as they used to, or being stretched in ways that they weren’t [before], maybe our cultures are losing a little bit of those wonderful serendipitous encounters with that information.”
He adds that social media can be an engine of serendipity too, but: “I think the point he was making, which is a really smart point; if we lose that somehow, if people really do only live in echo chambers and they really do shun people that don’t live in the same information bubble that they live in, there’s all sorts of ways that culture is hurt by that.”
“The fact of the matter is that these are tools that people use to organise and build movement and so in a way they are serving a sort of different and community oriented function that traditional media never wanted to serve,” says Rainie.
It is a bold statement by Greste to claim that “quite the opposite is true” of the role social media plays in bringing society together.
It is a difficult argument to pit against stories like the Arab Spring, or on a smaller scale, the killing of US teenager Trayvon Martin in 2012.
A report from The University of Washington, which analysed several million tweets, gigabytes of YouTube videos and thousands of blog posts before and during the Arab Spring revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia, concluded that: “Social media played a central role in shaping political debates in the Arab Spring. Conversations about revolution often preceded major events, and social media has carried inspiring stories of protest across international borders.”
“Our evidence suggests that social media carried a cascade of messages about freedom and democracy across North Africa and the Middle East, and helped raise expectations for the success of political uprising,” said Philip Howard, the project lead and an associate professor in communication at the University of Washington. “People who shared interest in democracy built extensive social networks and organized political action. Social media became a critical part of the toolkit for greater freedom.”
“In other words,” Howard said, “people throughout the region were drawn into an extended conversation about social uprising. The success of demands for political change in Egypt and Tunisia led individuals in other countries to pick up the conversation. It helped create discussion across the region.”
In the much smaller case of Trayvon Martin, “There was this element of conversation in social media, before it really did reverberate a lot in the press,” says Pew’s Amy Mitchell.
A report which sought to establish “who was influential when” in the growing publicity for the Trayvon Martin case found that: “broadcast media is still important as an amplifier and gatekeeper, but that it is susceptible to media activists working through participatory or nonprofessional media to co-create the news and influence the framing of major controversies.”
It certainly supports what Greste says he learned in prison, that the press has a fundamental role in keeping the conversation going - but the relationship between social media and the press is symbiotic, not parasitic.
“They don’t quite have the same sized megaphone they used to have, but [journalists] still have tremendous voices in the culture, and once it goes into the mainstream media then lots of other people start talking about it in the social media,” says Pew’s Lee Rainie.
“And so there’s this back and forth interplay between mainstream and social media that often puts stories in a very different trajectory than if it had just been left to traditional media.”
It is also important to remember that social media plays a significant part in the ongoing conversation of an issue - say, for example, the #FreeAJStaff campaign - when the press has turned its attention to the next story.
"[Social media] keeps conversations alive," says Rainie, "And the news media doesn’t cover it on the front page everyday, but people are talking about it on social media every day using that hashtag every day, and so even if the attention of journalists has turned to a different subject, there’s a community of people who keep talking about it, and therefore has the capacity to bring it back to public attention."
It seems though, from Pew’s research at least, that the press are indeed finding their footing in this new role. Mitchell says that several years of studies of trending news topics among blogs and social media show an increasing overlap between what they are saying and what the press are saying.
Peter Greste is right to say that the press has a duty to bridge social divides and “reach right across society”. He is right that traditional media can still be the megaphone for stories. But social media does not silo individuals - rather, it gives power to voices the press once overlooked.
Photo courtesy of The Walkley Foundation.