This week I want to talk about echo chambers and black-and-white thinking. I’m not alone in being concerned about this. It’s actually becoming a bit of a hot topic item in major media outlets these days as people are starting to recognize the serious threat that echo chambers create for our democracy here in the US and for free and critical thinking everywhere. As we’ll go over, this is probably more a problem with political and religious thought than it is for other areas of interest such as music.
Why I became intereted in this, of course, is because the parallels with the us vs them thiniking that goes on in destructive cults were too obvious to miss. When man-made, social media mechanisms exist which serve to create echo chambers, serve to divide us instead of unite us or help us at least find common ground, then what you have is social media actually creating cult mentalities and that is always always always a bad idea.
Wikipedia: “In news media, the term echo chamber is analogous with an acoustic echo chamber, where sounds reverberate in a hollow enclosure. An echo chamber is a metaphorical description of a situation in which information, ideas, or beliefs are amplified or reinforced by communication and repetition inside a defined system. Inside a figurative echo chamber, official sources often go unquestioned and different or competing views are censored, disallowed, or otherwise underrepresented.”
When faced with opposing teams or competition, it’s natural for people to choose one or the other based on whatever biases they have and once chosen, to stick with it.
Dr. Nicholas DiFonzo in 2011 wrote an opinion piece based on his researches into rumors and social groups where he said “…most people tend to get ‘evidence’ to substantiate rumors from friends or sources of information that they trust. The fact is, Americans across the political spectrum tend to trust the news media (and ‘facts’ provided by the media) less than their own social group.”
Further, he said “In my research, when Republicans and Democrats were put in separate groups and each group was asked to discuss a derogatory rumor about the other party (e.g., ‘Republicans are uneducated;’ ‘Democrats give less to charity’) beliefs in these rumors polarized in predictable directions. When the discussion groups were mixed, this did not happen.”
The echo chamber effect reinforces one’s own present world view, making it seem more correct and more universally accepted than it really is.
If you want to know one reason, and probably a major one, for the increasing large divides in our society over the past two decades, may I suggest that social media may have something to do with this? And specifically the echo chambers that algorithms on social media create.
Originally, the internet was looked upon as a source of almost limitless knowledge. All the world’s libraries, private collections and of course, media could be digitized, indexed and made instantly accessible. But instead of meeting that amazing potential, our nature has only made the internet exaggerate what were already human failings in our reason and thinking.
Google started on September 4, 1998.
Facebook started in Feb 2004
YouTube launched on Feb 14, 2005.
Reddit launched June 23, 2005. Extreme echo chambers are called circle jerks
Twitter started March 21, 2006
Instagram came along in 2010
Critical thinking, at its very essence, requires the ability to examine disparate, even polar opposite, points of view simultaneously and find strengths and weaknesses in each side.
The algorithms that the owners of every one of these social media sites created were wholly and completley under their control and every one of them failed miserably in having the foresight or ability to predict that by feeding people only what they want to hear, they have altered the entire media landscape and have made it all but impossible for critical thinking to even begin to happen. Serious work is only being done now to try to correct this.
Eli Pariser, the CEO of Upworthy, a liberal news website, told NPR in a July 2016 article, “What most algorithms are trying to do is to increase engagement, increase the amount of attention you’re spending on that platform,” he says. And while it’s a nice that we have an instrument to help us cope with the fire hose of information supplied by the Internet, that algorithm also carries some downsides. “The danger is that increasingly you end up not seeing what people who think differently see and in fact not even knowing that it exists.”
NPR’s Gene Demby in this same article stated “When you see poll numbers about the vast space between the way people of color feel about policing — or any number of issues around equality — and where white people stand on those issues, it can be explained in part by the fact that we are not having the same conversations.”
Even President Obama in his farewell address, talked directly about the filter bubbles we put ourselves in and the danger to our democracy these present:
“We all have to start with the premise that each of our fellow citizens loves this country just as much as we do; that they value hard work and family just like we do; that their children are just as curious and hopeful and worthy of love as our own.
“And that’s not easy to do. For too many of us, it’s become safer to retreat into our own bubbles, whether in our neighborhoods or on college campuses, or places of worship, or especially our social media feeds, surrounded by people who look like us and share the same political outlook and never challenge our assumptions. The rise of naked partisanship, and increasing economic and regional stratification, the splintering of our media into a channel for every taste — all this makes this great sorting seem natural, even inevitable. And increasingly, we become so secure in our bubbles that we start accepting only information, whether it’s true or not, that fits our opinions, instead of basing our opinions on the evidence that is out there.
“And this trend represents a third threat to our democracy. But politics is a battle of ideas. That’s how our democracy was designed. In the course of a healthy debate, we prioritize different goals, and the different means of reaching them. But without some common baseline of facts, without a willingness to admit new information, and concede that your opponent might be making a fair point, and that science and reason matter — then we’re going to keep talking past each other, and we’ll make common ground and compromise impossible.”
The algorithms used by these social media platforms are very advanced because all of these supposedly “free” platforms are driven by advertising revenue. In this new, internet-based corporate model, YOU are the product and the free services that are provided to you are simply vast data collection mechanisms to help the advertisers and social media engines get the data they need to survive. They want to know everything about you: your location, job, who you like and don’t like, diet and lifestyle choices, entertainment preferences, your political leanings and opinions on every single different issue. All of these and a lot more are used to not only target you with advertising but to also customize your social media feeds or walls or pages or whatever to give you more of what you tell them you like.
When someone is fed on a steady diet of only what they already think or feel, those views are confirmed and reinforced, no matter how wrong-headed, illogical or inaccurate they may be.
It’s interesting how studies done so far have shown that this is more a problem when it comes to political discourse and news than say, music choices. Kartik Hosanagar, professor at The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, said in a Wired magazine article that in studies done in 2010 and 2014 with iTunes users, algorithms that helped suggest music choices did not result in any real serious overlap or echo chamber effect amongst musical selections. People’s musical preferences are very eclectic and the recommendations made by iTunes actually helped many branch out into new interests.
Hosanagar wrote “But political content is different from other forms of media. For example, people are less likely to hold extreme views about or polarize over, say, music than political ideologies. Further, social newsfeeds are different from the personalized recommendations one might see on iTunes. So the question is whether our results generalize to social media as well.”
Facebook researchers have looked into this and have concluded the users and what they choose to click on is more their fault than anything Facebook is doing, but I tend to refute that conclusion. Facebook can and definitely should provide a more diverse and maybe even random selection of news articles in its News Feed rather than continually feed articles which simply reinforce what you or your friends are reading.
There is also emotional contagion via social media, a subject which has received some study but not enough to be conclusive.
This is not to say that social media platforms are inherently evil and should be destroyed. Emily Parker wrote an interesting piece in the Washingon Post this past May titled “In praise of echo chambers” where she made the very good point that echo chambers can be formidable tools for political resistance. Recall the Arab Spring of 2011 where social media played a tremendous role in the revolutions that occurred across the Middle East and North Africa. As Emily wrote, “The key is to use social media for mobilization, not persuasion.” You are not doing anything very productive when you are preaching to the already converted, which is what many of us do when we link and re-link to articles that reinforce our own beliefs over and over again. But to use our social media platforms to plan, to organize, to announce events and activities that like-minded people can actually go out and do – now that is where social media becomes a social force for actual change.
Emily also wrote: “In countries that restrict freedom of assembly, dissidents find each other on the Internet. In China and Russia, the opposition uses social media to organize among themselves, not to convince the other side.”
In the US in just the past year, we’ve seen this kind of activism wiht the Women’s March, the Science March, as well as the protests of the travel ban where activists used social media accounts to direct people to airports, and even an anti-Uber campaign which prompted 200,000 people to delete their Uber accounts. More recently, we’ve seen social media activated to get people calling their Congressmen and there’s no doubt this heavily contributed to defeating the last few efforts of the GOP to repeal and replace Obamacare. You may not agree with each or even any of these kinds of protests, but my point is not whether these were good or bad things to do, but the fact that social media was used to make something happen instead of just everyone sitting on their butts liking each others posts but doing absolutely nothing to effect change.