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Education & Development

Social media - fake news, filter bubbles and sharing wisely!

Updated Monday 5th February 2018

Meet Frank and travel with him on his adventures through the (sometimes foggy) realms of social media. Explore sharing, filter bubbles and fake news- maybe you can learn from Frank's mistakes with the help of Josie Long.

Think before you tweet!

Oh dear Frank, you really should think more carefully before posting on social media - learn this valuable lesson at Frank's expense!


It’s hard to imagine now, but the only way to gossip about your friends used to be by letter or carrier pigeon.  

So, there’s no denying, technology has brought about major changes in the way we communicate.

We've gone from sending letters, to speaking across time and space, to having unlimited communication at our fingertips. 

But with this brave new world of constant communication come many pitfalls... 

Here we see Frank tweeting about his new boss. What could possibly go wrong?

Well, with face-to-face conversation, a huge amount of what we communicate comes via our expressions and tone of voice. But online, it’s all too easy for things like sarcasm to be misinterpreted. 

And then there’s social media’s remarkable reach, sharing and spreading like some alien super-virus.

So it’s easy for Frank’s innocent little jibe to travel far beyond his circle. For it to be altered, commented on or even, Heaven help him, turned into a meme.

And unlike the nonsense Frank shouts into his friend’s ear at 2am, what we say online stays there... in an easily searchable format. 

So, 20 years later, when he’s become a loved and revered author, Frank’s innocent little comment can come back to haunt him (and really undermine his angle).
So, Frank, what have we learnt?

That we can no longer treat our casual conversations as private in today’s online world. It’s best to assume that everything we say on social media is public - or has the potential to be. 

Or, to put it more simply... Frank, think before you tweet!

Who reads what you write online?

Aunt Mabel, pals from the pub, your best friend's ex wife - who are you talking to when you post online?


One of the peculiarities of communicating on social media is that you’re often addressing an invisible audience – you don’t know exactly who’se reading your posts, or how they’ll react.

Take Frank, for example. Here he is just back from a party and wanting to tell people what his friend Pierre got up to. He’ll need to phrase his status update carefully so Great Aunt Mabel doesn’t understand what he means.

If he makes it sound a bit racy he’ll impress his old school friends. But he needs to be tactful, just in case Pierre’s ex-wife reads it. How’s he going to navigate all these potential readers in his online network?

Gossip’s an essential part of human society. It bolsters friendships and helps us bond as communities. But it can also, obviously, be problematic.

In the offline world, you have more control of who hears what you say. Online it’s trickier, and potentially more hazardous. 

Frank is friends on Facebook with a wide assortment of different people, from all parts of his life. These include friends from school, colleagues from work, random people he met on holiday, elderly relatives, and his best friend’s ex-wife.

Usually, he sees them all in different places and can talk to them very differently. But on Facebook... they’re all packed into the same place. 

There are two main ways that people manage this potentially tricky social situation. 

Firstly, people often try to steer clear of controversial or negative topics. 

They also tend to present their ‘best selves’ to the online audience, and to come across as positive, friendly individuals.

Frank, for instance, is carefully creating his online persona as an intriguing, fun-loving, and sensitive individual.

The other way of handling it is to try to control who reads your posts.
You can tag specific people, take care of how you phrase things, or even switch to a different language. 

In this way, people are shaping the way that social media works through their own actions.
And this is a useful way to look at social media. If we’re constantly harassing each other it becomes a cesspit of bitterness and recrimination. But if we’re friendly to each other and smart about how we talk, we can create a pleasant, convivial place. 


Filter bubbles and fake news

Have you ever noticed you only see opinions on social media that match your own? Maybe you are trapped in a filter bubble! And what is all this fake news we hear about in the... news...?


Language is central to the way we understand the world. It mediates everything, from the way we see world events, to how we understand the big issues of the day. 

But it’s not only newspapers and television programmes, that shape our understanding of society. 

Our friends also play a part. We tend to be friends with people who have the same views as us. And this creates an ‘echo chamber’ effect, where we mainly just get to hear opinions that we already agree with. 

This issue has become very noticeable in the era of social media. And it’s further reinforced by the way personalisation algorithms on sites like Facebook feed us stories, based on what we’ve shown a preference for in the past.

These algorithms create what are known as online filter bubbles, which can have the effect of shielding people from opposing viewpoints. 

And from the comfort of our filter bubbles, it can come as quite a shock when large groups have very different opinions to our own. 

But judging by Frank’s experience, these algorithms don’t always work.  

This is because most people’s friends on Facebook come from a wide range of backgrounds. So there’s always a lot of diversity in our online networks. And lots of different opinions. 

But people don’t usually want to get into arguments on sites like Facebook - after all, they’re supposedly friends with the people they interact with.

When they realise someone‘s regularly posting views they disagree with, the tendency is not to engage them in debate, but to quietly unfriend them or block them.
One of the big implications of filter bubbles is the spread of misinformation or ‘fake news’. 

Fake news refers to stories which are purposefully circulated for money, for propaganda or just for fun. 

Fake news can spread very quickly on social media because of its culture of sharing, and the fact that there are no editorial checks to slow things down. 

And, if people only get one side of the story and only speak with people who share their views, they’re unlikely to spot or challenge these inaccuracies.
So Frank, what have we learnt? 

The only real way to deal with fake news is to be aware that it happens, and to look at more than one source.

And just as language mediates the way we see the world so does technology. It’s crucial to understand how social media can distort the information we receive before we make up our minds. 

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