Echo Chambers on Social Media
Have you ever found yourself on Facebook, Twitter, or another social media site seeing the same articles, posts, and opinions in a rotation? Have you found that everything you see on your feed is within the same general political viewpoint? Can this become so much that when you hear about extremists on the other political side you find it increasingly difficult to find any sense of understanding in their argument or common ground between you two? This is because of the echo chambers our social media creates.
What are echo chambers?
On social media, programmers have developed certain algorithms that are in place to fill our newsfeeds with whatever we like to see. If we look at lots of pictures of animals, we will see more pictures of animals. If at one point we check out a friends profile, we might see them pop up on our feed every once in a while. If we are shown an ad for a cool gadget or item of clothing and then purchase said item, we will be shown countless ads for item like those that the algorithms believe we might enjoy. This is all fine and good until we start using social media as our main source of political information. When we look at political pages and articles using social media, we tell the social media algorithms which perspective we like to see, so the algorithms then feed us that very perspective.
This past year specifically, we as a country have grown to put a deal of trust into social media. One article, “What We’ve Learned About the Media Industry During the Election” by John Herrman describes this past year in being unlike any before in that the mainstream media has lost the power and responsibility of being the sole source of information for the general public. He portrays this as “ A new business model [that] had not replaced an old one — not yet. There was, for the duration of the campaign, effectively no model at all” (Herrman). The news industries were struggling to find an effective model to combat with the effects of social media during the election, and in doing so left our country without a reliable method of news consumption. Now, thanks to social media, the mainstream media has to compete with anyone who posts an interesting article, blog post, or Facebook story, meaning that if you get your news from social media, all you see is what you like to see.
By trapping ourselves in these chambers we are limiting our worldviews, and by doing so as a country we are limiting our growth and maximizing the ever-growing gap between political ideologies.
When, why, and how did I become interested?
I first became interested in echo chambers when in a philosophy class, an analogy was used that included a description of an online identity formed from your online habits such as social media, web searches, frequency to check, click, view and more. This identity is then used in order to customize your online experience, from the ads you are exposed to, to the different Facebook posts and tweets you’re more likely to see on your feeds, your online identity is effecting your online experience for better or worse.
This frightened and intrigued me for multiple reasons. First off, I wondered where the line between effective marketing and manipulative propaganda was drawn in terms of social media. The newly developed political influence of social media outlined in Herrman’s article is one that is not yet rationalized and equalized, in that this form of news for public access is still faulty and even biased in some ways. Thinking back to the American Psychological Association (APA) decision reported on by Dale Kunkel, PhD and Brian Wilcox, PhD back in 2004 that the use of highly advanced psychological techniques to manipulate American children to buy fast food was highly unethical, one might think that creating a profitable news outlet that drastically affects or dramatizes your political views is overreaching the capitalistic advertising bounds that we as a country have set in place and therefore harmful to our nations general morale(“APA”).
I believe that what is currently happening with social media outlets is quite similar to the early days of fast food advertising in the same ethical manner. Due to how new the concept of social media is and the lack of research produced studying the effects of social media on the minds of not just young people, but all people, we don’t actually know what these algorithms and only seeing what you want to see or agree with could do to a person’s psyche over a long period of time.
Why should you care?
This may not all sound too bad, however only seeing your own perspective can quickly radicalize a group of people. Groups of extremists on all sides are not hearing any opposition as their ideas quickly radicalize, and psychological effects such as confirmation bias (one’s likeliness of looking for facts to confirm their own bias) and riot mentality (the ability for groups of people acting irrationally to enable individuals to act irrationally and out of character in a rather violent manner) are occurring in these social media echo chambers. In “The Dangers of Echo Chambers on Campus”, Nicholas Kristof explains that by only providing insight to one perspective, we are limiting ourselves from having a full, detailed, correct understanding of a topic. In the article, he explains that college professors are overwhelmingly liberal and that hearing too much of one opinion is always a bad thing, in fact, people, judges in particular, always make better decisions when surrounded by many varying opinions (Kristof). If this is true, then why could we possibly expect the average American, who is vastly more biased than a judge, to make the best most informed decisions when they only have access to one sliver of the story? Echo Chambers have created an environment that is both impossible to grow as a country in and undeniably addictive to the general public and this is a problem the US needs to both address and work together to find a solution to, preferably before the next election.
Herrman, John. “What We’ve Learned About the Media Industry During This Election.” The New York Times, 8 Nov. 2016, https://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/09/business/media/what-weve-learned-about-the-media-industry-during-this-election.html. Accessed 27 Sept. 2017.
Kristof, Nicholas. “The Dangers of Echo Chambers on Campus.” The New York Times, 10 Dec. 2016, https://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/10/opinion/sunday/the-dangers-of-echo-chambers-on-campus.html?_r=1. Accessed 27 Sept. 2017.
Kunkel, Dale, and Brian Wilcox. “Television Advertising Leads to Unhealthy Habits in Children; Says APA Task Force.” American Psychological Association, American Psychological Association, 23 Feb. 2004, www.apa.org/news/press/releases/2004/02/children-ads.aspx. Accessed 27 Sept. 2017.