Social media has helped to create a more connected, yet disconnected world than ever before. In wake of the political upsets in 2016, it became more apparent that social media companies are partially responsible for creating pockets of polarised echo chambers amongst online communities.
So, what is an echo chamber? The term is a metaphorical description (derived from an acoustic echo chamber) of a situation in which preconceived information, ideas and beliefs are reinforced or amplified by means of repetition inside politics, culture, academia or a media environment.
In an echo chamber, subjects can find themselves caught up in an oblivious, self-contained bubble in which their own beliefs are consistently repeated back to them – this often results in a hardening of the individual’s belief system, which can lead to confirmation bias and tunnel vision reality.
Since levels of trust in mainstream news outlets have slumped to an all-time low, more people are turning to social media to get their fix of daily news. Therefore, it’s hardly surprising that social media has overtaken TV as the primary news source for the younger generations.
But who can blame us? As far as information is concerned, social media has an abundance of choice when compared to your standard mainstream TV channels. It’s allowed us to become far more selective over the news outlets that we follow and give credibility to – and rightly so.
The self-selecting nature of social media makes it easy for us to filter what we consume by following thought leaders and news outlets that align with our worldviews, whilst ignoring those who don’t fit our subjective interpretation of the world as we see it.
Sites such as Google, YouTube, Facebook and Twitter are finely-tuned to our biases thanks to their highly-personalised algorithms that are programmed to show us content that is relative to our search history, our location and other previous activities.
Have you ever noticed that when you conduct a Google search on two different people’s devices, the search results are, in some cases, completely different? Sounds crazy, but it gives us a good indication of how our search results are being manipulated.
The same goes for social media. When you check the trending topics on your Facebook or Twitter account, it’s almost guaranteed that someone else will have a completely different set of trending topics. Whilst one person sees war or famine trending, another person sees Kim Kardashian trending.
“It will be very hard for people to watch or consume something that has not, in some sense, been tailored for them” – Eric Schmidt
But this is hardly our fault, right? Wrong. We can only go so far with blaming algorithms for our collective ignorance. And whilst social media companies undoubtedly play a huge role in sociological advances, it appears that there is another factor at play.
Humans have a natural tendency to congregate with like-minded groups of people to form modern-day tribes. At the same time, we tend to ignore or disregard the views of individual critics in opposing tribes, despite being somewhat aware of our own biases.
This instinctive behaviour has augmented itself in the virtual sense on social media. Everything from our Facebook friends to our YouTube subscriptions is shaping the way we see the world. Mostly unaware of this, we continue to unknowingly reinforce the walls of our own echo chambers.
Nowadays, it’s not uncommon to hear of individuals blocking others over differences in political views. In 2016 especially, many of us will have seen the following posted on social media: ‘If you voted for X, then delete/unfollow me’, or ‘if you voted for X, then you’re an *abusive insult*’.
It appears that certain individuals on social media find it much easier to block or insult people they disagree with, instead of engaging in discourse and reasoning their objections. Besides creating large divides in society, it’s destructive to the ideals of rational debate.
The normalisation of this behaviour is also nurturing a culture of self-censorship on the internet. Individuals are becoming more concerned about expressing their views in fear that they will be marginalised or stereotyped for doing so – and this is only exacerbating the issue.
Since it’s not likely, without collective action, we will be able to force social media companies to re-engineer their algorithms, we should proactively seek to break free from the confines of our individual echo chambers by challenging our own worldviews from time to time.
This begins with understanding that our own predefined narrative isn’t objectively true for everyone. A little bit of introspection can help to alleviate the effects of echo chambers. Even if we truly can’t see any faults in our own reasoning, nor any truths in the argument of our opposition.
We must also realise that by ignoring this issue, we are depriving ourselves of new ideas, new subjects and new information. It comes down to being aware of the content we consume (and the creators), actively expanding our news sources and balancing our knowledge of important topics.
As Donny Miller once said:
‘In an age of information, ignorance is a choice.’