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SUNDAY MBA

Companies should beware social media ‘bubble’

In 2001, Cass Sunstein predicted that the Internet would lead to increased fragmentation and polarization in American public life.
In 2001, Cass Sunstein predicted that the Internet would lead to increased fragmentation and polarization in American public life.(whitehouse.gov)

Sunday MBA provides ideas on running better businesses and succeeding in the modern workplace, this week from MIT Sloan Management Review.

In his 2001 article “The Daily We,” Cass Sunstein predicted that the Internet would lead to increased fragmentation and polarization in American public life. Much of what he predicted is playing out in the 2016 presidential race, particularly among Republicans, where we see a number of candidates who continue to stay in the race despite single-digit poll numbers.

One reason might be that social networks are giving candidates and their supporters an unrealistically optimistic perception of their chances of success. This trend also has important implications for using digital tools for business.

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When social media tools provide the ability to find the content we most want to read, we are likely to search out content that confirms our existing views. Algorithmic search tools like Facebook’s newsfeed exacerbate this tendency by automatically recognizing which content we have sought in the past and then delivering what is most like what we have previously viewed. As a result, we rarely engage with content that represents viewpoints different from our own.

The same characteristic also extends to those with whom we connect using social media tools. We are likely to use this networking ability to connect with people who are most like ourselves, which compounds the effects of content filtering.

This tendency for social media to support our existing views and preferences is no accident. It’s what users want. People want to spend time in environments where they are supported and liked. The more we are supported and liked, the more time we spend on social media sites, and the more content we share through it.

Social networks succeed by creating a comfortable environment that continually reassures us that most people are like us, our own views are the “right” ones, and they are shared by a greater number of people than they actually are.

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Eli Pariser calls this phenomenon the “filter bubble.” Awareness of this tendency is important for executives and companies using social media for communication, innovation, and decision-making.

Executives should recognize that the voices coming through on social media are not necessarily representative of the majority of customers or stakeholders — they might only represent the views of a small but vocal online community.

Even if a particular view is representative of all users of a specific platform such as Twitter, those users might not reflect the overall views of the broader population. As an example, Twitter sentiment nearly unanimously supported Scotland’s independence from the United Kingdom during a 2014 referendum, but the measure failed at the polls, with slightly more than 55 percent of Scots voters rejecting the measure.

Social media data can result in an invaluable source of insight for companies, but only when used correctly. Executives should always augment social media data with other sources of information before using it for important decisions.

Companies should also be aware of filter bubbles when using social media for internal communication and collaboration purposes. The same dynamics can occur among employees just as easily as it does in politics.

Sunstein’s analysis offers some helpful guidance for how to avoid them. He notes that shared experiences are important for developing connections and information exchange that break down filter bubbles. These might take place as weekly “all hands” meetings where members of an organization can get on the same page.

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Sunstein was prescient in his analysis of how online filtering mechanisms would affect public life. Executives should be aware of this tendency of social media to result in filter bubbles as we move into a world where personal and professional communication increasingly occurs over social media platforms, and where companies increasingly use this data for decision-making.


This article is adapted from “What Companies Should Learn About Social Media From American Politics” by Gerald C. Kane, associate professor at the Carroll School of Management at Boston College. Copyright 2015 MIT Sloan Management Review. All rights reserved.