How to Escape an Evolving Social Echo Chamber
One of the biggest themes to come out of the recent election is the role that social media plays in facilitating a personal echo chamber of thoughts, opinions and ideas. Echo chambers are getting a bit of a hard time at the moment - because let's face it, the election shocked everyone.
Why did it shock people? What is an echo chamber, exactly?
An echo chamber is a space that surrounds us with similar attitudes to our own, which sort of sounds like a great concept, right? While it can be safe and accommodating, it'll only end up dumping you with the holy mother of surprises in the end. Case in point, the election result.
We're all the same... oh...
Chances are that you hang around, online and offline, with people who share similar outlooks and ideas. This is usually why people are drawn to each other and get on, and given this, if you looked at your Twitter or Facebook feed during the election, you probably mostly saw stuff that reinforced your opinion and were like 'yeah, this is what most people are thinking, I'm pretty sure I know how this is all gonna' pan out'.
But hold the phone; everyone's not thinking the same. We curate our online feeds, we're the designers. We can blank out opposing voices and promote and share content that complements our own ideals. The 'echo chamber' isn't a realistic cross-section of society, it's a space that we've each individually formulated.
And this has a big impact, especially when 76% of 18-34 year-olds are using Facebook more than they're watching TV every month.
But the thing is, echo chambers work for content that isn't related to politics or the news.
It's nice to see lots of videos of cute puppies (if you're into cute puppies), and social media platforms do a great job when they show you more of the stuff you're interested in.
But when the content is more serious, like political preferences, how can you burst the echo chamber bubble to ensure you're keeping yourself adequately informed?
Adjust your Facebook Feed
Facebook needs to answer some serious questions about its responsibilities - whether it wants those responsibilities or not. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg recently claimed it was crazy to suggest Facebook has a role to play in big events like elections, and that most people make their decisions based on 'lived experiences'. But part of people's lived experience these days is now on social media, so if your social feeds are echo chambers, that influence can be significant.
The first thing you can try to do to counteract this is you can adjust your Facebook feed. You can tweak your News Feed preferences to give you a more well-rounded collection of news and information sources, instead of news sites that merely consolidate what you already think. Minimizing your contact with opposing views won't help you to understand other people or hear the other side of the story, which means you're only ever seeing half of the equation.
At the same time, we all know there are lots of fake, sensationalized news sources out there - this doesn't mean you don't have to start following what they say (for your own sanity's sake, if nothing else).
Pew Research estimates that 44% of Americans get their news from Facebook, so it's essential that you're reading credible research. Reading and listening to intelligent, prestige media from the other side is recommended - whether that's conservative, liberal, socialist, libertarian or something else.
The same goes for other issues outside of politics - for example, reading about contrasting perspectives and impacts on different sectors when business announcements are made.
In truth, Facebook has to do more to help people expose themselves to opposing ideas and reach more meaningful consensus. James Shamsi suggests that Facebook could look to provide an option to turn off algorithmic content distribution for anything related to politics to help people to escape a loop of their own opinions.
The same logic applies to Twitter - we're all guilty of collating a collection of voices that we find funny, agree with or view as authentic, transforming our timelines into a utopia for your own belief-system.
When times are good, that approach can be great, but in times of trouble, we desperately need to make sense of things and that should mean putting your head above the parapet and gaining understanding through dialogue and engagement.
Start following credible figures and sources that hold opposing viewpoints. If they use research and empirical evidence to back up their claims, then their positions will work to strengthen your own balanced knowledge on a subject.
One of the best things you can do to burst the echo chamber bubble is to be aware that you're in one.
As long as you know that there are opposing views, and you read from credible sources that challenge your views, then it can only urge you to back up your own claims with more evidence. Critically assessing everything you read before you agree or accept it is crucial.
The emphasis with echo chambers is on our online activity - but our offline dealings are just as important.
We're more connected than ever, but that doesn't mean that we're unified. Making an effort to work and speak with more diverse groups of people and network outside of your comfort zone can help to positively shape your world view.
Schools, universities, and workplaces are all places with a cross-section of society, and everyone has a responsibility to reach out and be open to everyone. It can be far easier to understand people's opinions, ideas, and viewpoints when you're in front of them having a conversation, instead of exchanging thoughts 140 characters at a time.
It might be difficult, but try not to think in binary terms. People are complex and far more than just 'pro' or 'anti' or 'for' or 'against'. There are always commonalities that unite us and engaging with people through friendly dialogue and debate can help us to understand each other with more clarity.
Think and view social media with a critical lens, because it's not the whole story, only part of it. Be more open to new ideas and it'll help you to establish and more informed and rational opinion.
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