Are We the Problem? Overcoming Ourselves to Stay Informed

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We like, click, search, upvote, and subscribe to ensure that we are surrounded by information we want to see. While this is great for quick access to the world we want to engage in, it can quickly prevent us from seeing the world of the “other.” How do we make sure that we don’t live our digital lives in the echo chambers we so often decry?

The ‘Other World’

Where do the posts, videos, and news sources we don’t give our attention to go? They go to the “other world” — a place that we are neither engaged in or exposed to. A world of all the things we neither like, search, or subscribe to. An information environment filled with perspectives we don’t agree with. These perspectives are supported by “facts” that we’ve never heard and cite studies that were obviously paid for by special interest groups. Wrestling with the existence of such a world, we have to admit to ourselves that we live there too. We all live in someone else’s “other world,” and they are equally perplexed about how we could live in such a place.

Staying Informed

We’ve read the news, watched videos, and seen trending posts about all of the topics of interest today. The late-night talk show hosts talk about them, and our favorite podcasts cover them in-depth. We talk to our friends to see if they are aware of the same information, ultimately concluding that they have only a slightly different take on the same opinion as us. Following this routine day after day is a rhythm that we’re accustomed to; however, we’ve just built our own echo chamber brick by brick.

The Digital Realm

It started in the early 2000s with cross-site cookies. They are the cornerstone of digital advertising, and they make sure you see advertisements for things associated with what you’ve looked for before. Search engines may track your activity to provide personalized search results. This means you’re likely to be exposed to search results that fit your previously recorded interests. Next, social media sites use your demographic information to send tailored advertisements to you that they think fit your profile. This becomes more pronounced as you like and react to posts that weigh how likely you are to see more posts of this type again. Perhaps another way to look at all this is, “How often do you search to prove yourself wrong?”

The Friend Zone

According to the Pew Research Center over half of us claim to have few or no friends of the opposing political party. We use our friends to normalize our opinions, get introduced to new ideas, and test our own. The likelihood of being introduced to a dissenting opinion is gradually shrinking as a result. While a study from Boston College confirmed this trend, ultimately the truth is that we are unlikely to engage with people that vehemently disagree with our perspectives. It simply isn’t worth the stress and animosity it causes.

What Can You Do?

Step 1: Check your sources. We pride ourselves on being informed information consumers, but when was the last time you checked your sources? A great resource to check the bias of a news organization is Ad Fontes Media. They rate information sources by reliability and bias with the organization mission of “making news consumers smarter and news media better.” The key isn’t to dedicate yourself solely to the center, but rather to ensure you’re getting a balance of information sources.

Step 2: Don’t give into “outrage bait.” Click bait is an advertisement or news article designed to encourage the reader to engage. An extreme example of this is outrage bait, which is designed to get you engaged through either anger or fear. It is littered with hyper-aggressive wording, such as “destroys”, “slams,” or “declares war on.” Other times it is designed to instill fear in the reader through cleverly omitted facts to imply the individual is at risk. The last tool in the outrage bait arsenal is to make you believe that someone or something is threatening your view of norms. A commonly cited example of this is the campaign to change the gender of Santa Clause. These tactics highlight the need to be aware of your curiosity gap, and try not to let it influence how you engage the media.

Step 3: Keep your friends close… and the friends you disagree with closer. Friends you disagree with are an important arsenal in your toolkit. They let you hear about current events from another point of view, introduce you to information about a topic that your echo chamber may not expose you to, and allow you to see the voice of an argument not as “them,” but rather as a person that is interested in the world as much as you are. Hear what they have to say, but remember that sometimes you will just have to disagree. Respect the differences, and strive to never “unfriend” someone in haste due to a disagreement. Friendships are never worth the argument of the day.

Step 4: Walk softly, control your digital footprints. Downloading ad blockers and a browser that does not support third-party cookies can help limit targeted advertising and news stories. While Firefox disabled third-party cookies in September 2019, this is not expected for another two years in some browsers or is enabled by default in others. You can also modify your news feed settings on Facebook to ensure that you’re seeing what and who you want.

Step 5: The ultimate challenge to break out of our echo chambers is to overcome ourselves. We have to be willing to listen to things that make us uncomfortable. We must realize that not all the news we see on our preferred news outlets is unbiased or well sourced. We have to not give in to outrage bait designed to illicit emotional calls for fear or anger in order to entice engagement. After all, if you aren’t willing to do these things yourself, how can you expect those in the “other world” to do so?

Dathan Duplichen

About the author: Dathan Duplichen is a master’s student with FSI’s Ford Dorsey Master’s in International Policy program concentrating on Cyber Policy and Security. He is a career technology specialist for the United States Department of Defense that focuses on international cooperation in the cyberspace.

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The Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies is Stanford’s premier research institute for global affairs.

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FSI Stanford

FSI Stanford

The Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies is Stanford’s premier research institute for international affairs. Faculty views are their own.

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