Beware The Social Media Echo Chamber

The division in the country is alarming. Even before we knew the outcome of the election, the divisions that have surfaced over the past several months will remain for quite some time and heal rather slowly. People will point the finger at the candidates themselves, maybe even their supporters, but the fault may not lie with one person or even a group of people. The blame lies with something that happened right in front of your face, but never even realized. It happened within the algorithms that control your social media feed.

The algorithms aggregate data based on what you click on, like, and share, then proceed to make suggestions based on all that information. On the surface that sounds great. You get a newsfeed full of things that you like, so you click on them and are more engaged. The social media platform gets happier users, spending more time on the site. It’s a win – win. Only, it isn’t.

Social media has gotten so good at knowing what you like, that you are never presented with any dissenting opinions to make you think or help see the other side of a particular issue. Why would the platform suggest an article they know you won’t click on? This has created an echo chamber, mainly for political opinions, and with the massive amount of social media users, has contributed immensely to the fierce divisions taking root in this country.

People are being hit with tens of article suggestions and shared posts every day, all targeted to and supporting their particular belief on whatever the issue may be. As the saying goes, “If you lie to yourself enough, you start to believe it.” Well, if you see the same point supported by so many articles on a daily basis, the same theory holds true. Once you are confronted with a dissenting opinion, now, not only do you disagree with it you vehemently oppose it, because all you’ve been inundated with is information telling you otherwise.

You can’t really blame people. With the way most users consume information in 2016, it now takes a concerted effort to be presented with a differing opinion. Which of you honestly read an article and wonder if there is another side to the story?

Think this is all just an overreaction? Social scientists Walter Quattrociocchi, Antonio Scala and Cass Sunstein have already done a study on exactly this. They found that not only did social media users only seek out information that bolstered their existing opinion, but they readily adopted false information that supported their opinions as well. Even confronted with real facts, the subjects held on to their initial beliefs, citing the false information.

It would be like unquestionably shopping at the same store regardless of the price. A majority of the time you won’t need to look elsewhere for a better deal, but every once in a while there may be a screaming deal somewhere else that you’d otherwise be unaware of.

Listening to differing opinions is how we learn. The amount of people who turn themselves off to that is staggering. The only way to rally against the “Social Media Echo Chamber” is to be aware that it exists. Seek out a dissenting opinion, if for no other reason than to prove to yourself the other side’s argument is full of holes. If we just listen to what we want to hear, we may actually wind up becoming deaf.