Echo Chambers, Elections, and Engaging Empathy

I wanted to take some time today, to update an older post that I had written a little over a year ago. It’s a piece about considering options, and escaping your echo chamber. As we approach another November, and another election, it’s important that we don’t skip out on local, state, or federal elections. Try to keep this in mind every year.

I just got done with a cycling session, but something stirred in my thoughts as I was going, and I thought it was important to share. I’m hoping to get them all out as clearly as possible, but keep in mind, my mind has a rushed sense of clarity. Read on, if you dare…

I’m going to share my thoughts on a recent presidential poll release that has some great information on the various matchups during this election. The most important thing during this election cycle is to make sure you’re educated. Understanding as many candidates, stances, and policies as you can is going to make all the difference when it comes to voting this November (be it local, senate, presidential, or what have you). I highly recommend everyone delve into this article and look at what’s going on in this system of ours.

For those of you who don’t want to read the full poll, one statement struck a particular chord with me, and I think it’s important that we digest it.

“American likely voters give both candidates negative favorability ratings, 41 — 53 percent for Clinton and 33 — 61 percent for Trump. In fact, 37 percent of likely voters say they would consider voting for a third party candidate. “

37% of voters potentially considering a third party candidate is wonderful and troubling.

It’s wonderful because that means we’ve had a divisive enough election where people might consider actually looking at other options, which potentially leads to excellent politicians being put into positions where they can make real lasting change. My past example of this would be Bernie Sanders, having ran predominantly independent for his various seats in congress. This is a great example of a politician with different ideas that has certainly created important conversations in the political sphere.

What’s worse, and perhaps even more unsettling, is that 63% of people wouldn’t even consider another candidate. They wouldn’t even consider looking outside of party lines for an alternate solution. In the most divisive election ever, we’ve fallen back into the trap of the echo chamber.

But this isn’t all our fault. It’s most certainly the fault of the various forms of media that we actively choose to consume. If we “like” or search Gary Johnson, Hillary Clinton, or Trump on Facebook, Twitter, or Google, we’re presented with the exact same ideas and philosophies that we already agree with on some level. We get memes thrown in our face just reaffirm our already staunch beliefs.

Margaret Heffernan gave an excellent TED Talk title “Daring to Disagree”. She speaks of the danger of a lack of productive conflict that leads to a lack of information distribution as well as the indirect dangers of the echo chamber. One part stuck with me out of that speech… and if you’ve made it this far, give the transcript a quick read if you have the time. If not, here’s an important bit that stuck with me.

“So what does that kind of constructive conflict require? Well, first of all, it requires that we find people who are very different from ourselves. That means we have to resist the neurobiological drive, which means that we really prefer people mostly like ourselves,and it means we have to seek out people with different backgrounds, different disciplines, different ways of thinking and different experience, and find ways to engage with them. That requires a lot of patience and a lot of energy.”

The social media companies that we choose to consume on a daily basis seek not to educate us further, but to make us live in the same environment that we constantly see and participate in. We’re self-affirming our beliefs on a daily basis without being exposed to other thoughts. We don’t have conflict of ideas thrown at us (unless you read through a George Takei post) on a consistent enough basis to truly break out of our own bubbles. Hell, it’ll be interesting to see who actually gets to read this based on Facebook’s sorting algorithms in the first place!

I’m currently reading a book called “Invisible Influence” by Jonah Berger, which is about the hidden forces that shape our behavior. He’s got an excellent quote that speaks to the human condition of mimicry in groups.

“… imitation happens nonconsciously. We don’t deliberately lean back in our chair if someone else does the same, we don’t try to speak with a Texas drawl just because a friend does. But even though we may not realize it, we are constantly and automatically imitating the actions of those around us. Subtly moving, posturing, and acting in ways that mirror our interaction partners. And they’re doing the same for us.” (33)

This can be frightening. If we don’t surround ourselves with different people, different opinions, we will (and likely already have) created our own echo chambers that manifest beyond just our voting tendencies. We need to diversify our opinions and broaden our thoughts past these locked in conceptions that we have.

So, how can we defeat these preconceived notions?

Start by liking every candidates Facebook page. You may feel disdain in doing this, but if you do, you’re choosing to sit in your echo chamber, and not listen to other ideals. If you’re not, you’re largely ignoring them. I understand that not everyone I know will do this, but if you do understand what you’re exposing yourself to.

You’re exposing yourself to the needs of the businessmen who work 9–5.

You’re exposing yourself to the needs of the people who live on food stamps.

You’re exposing yourself to the needs of the people who are in-between jobs.

You’re exposing yourself to the needs of the people who feel oppressed.

You’re exposing yourself to the needs of the women who want to choose

You’re exposing yourself to the needs of the people who value life above all

You’re exposing yourself to the needs of the college students who don’t want loans.

You’re exposing yourself to the needs of the immigrants who love their families at home and abroad.

You’re exposing yourself to the human condition.

And that’s what’s important.

It’s breaking out of YOUR bubble, and peering into everyone else’s. Finding where you have empathy, where there is room for additional understanding or simply finding something that helps make sense of where someone else is coming from.

Not everything will be for you. You won’t relate with everything. But you’re that much better for knowing it.

Lets not use this as an opportunity to bicker and argue, but to present ideas and share information. If you choose, please be respectful of others thoughts; its important that we question, but also that we listen to the why of every single answer.

To finish up, I think one more important quote from Margaret leaves you with my general message.

TL;DR: Embrace this quote in your every day life, and do as much research as you can to broaden your understanding, even if you don’t agree with it.

“Open information is fantastic, open networks are essential. But the truth won’t set us free until we develop the skills and the habit and the talent and the moral courage to use it. Openness isn’t the end. It’s the beginning.”