What groups are you a part of on Facebook? When was the last time you evaluated the accounts you follow on Twitter? Who do you keep up with on Instagram and Snapchat? Odds are the people you are connected with share your worldview regarding politics, literature, culture, and more.
You’re not alone. That is what social media was designed to do; bridge the physical gaps to bring us closer to like-minded people. But when do these platforms start to work against us?
There is a mix of psychology and technology at work that keeps us from using social media to expand our perspectives. One way comes from the ability to virtually block out anyone that has a differing viewpoint from your own by deleting or unfollowing the offensive account. Then there is the rampant spread of fake news on all sides driving people farther apart. The combination can lead to a limiting online experience.
Echo chambers can be avoided.
The term “echo chamber” in the context of social media refers to a feed that primarily “echoes” your own views back to you. When other people have similar opinions to your own, you are more likely to feel validated and a part of a larger community. As social media was rapidly growing experts feared that echo chambers would become a major issue on the platform. However, recent studies show only a small amount of adults actually function in an echo chamber. Most of us share our social media feeds with a variety of viewpoints, some of which can be surprising.
Confirmation bias is the real problem.
Alex Edmans, a professor at the London Business School, stated that confirmation bias is when “we accept a story uncritically if it confirms what we’d like to be true.” In his TEDx presentation, Edmans goes on to say that people tend to work backwards when it comes to proving their theories; rather than make an educated decision based on the data, we seek out data that supports our hypothesis.
Even though most of us are not living in an echo chamber online, we do tend to discredit the accounts that differ from our own. Think of that family member whose political views are drastically different from your own. Do you read their posts with the same amount of interest and critical thinking as those on your side of the aisle? Or do you unfollow and scroll past?
We are helping algorithms spread fake news.
Echo chambers and confirmation bias feed social media algorithms the input they need to recommend pages and posts. We have all, at one point or another, shared an article that supports our opinions without fully reading through the entire piece. Or we interact with an obviously false perspective to invalidate it.
These actions may seem innocent enough, but they are the reason fake news spreads up to six times faster than the more accurate counterpart. When a post is rapidly gaining likes, comments and shares, platforms such as Facebook and Twitter boost them to the top of your feed regardless of credibility. The cycle then continues as you add your voice to the conversation even if you are only trying to state the facts.
Breaking the chamber and the bias.
So how do we ensure our own biases aren’t affecting our online experience? To start, think about Edmans statement that we work backwards from hypotheses rather than toward them. Actively seek out the alternative; follow pages and accounts that are different from your own and offer valid perspectives. Avoid interacting with content that is blatantly clickbait or fake news in any way to force the algorithms to ignore them. Start a conversation, stick to the facts, and be open to being proven wrong.