So how do social media and echo chambers affect each other? For starters, check out this article by NPR on how the internet is a catalyst to echo chambers and what to do about yours. But the issue I want to really hone in on is something I’ll call “militant close-mindedness”. Once I noticed my echo chamber, I started following a few more sources that frequently post points of view that are different from mine. When I did this, I discovered that my generally liberal friends were exceptionally intolerant to other points of view. This is the basics of what I mean by “militant closed-mindedness”.
But where does the “militant” part come in? I noticed the strong intolerance for other points of view because of how my friends reacted to differences on social media. Comments, sharing, even un-friending were common things for my friends to do when discussing politics. But here’s the kicker: many of my friends told me in person that they actively searched for people that disagreed with them on social media in order to change their opinions. Seeing others’ point of view was unimportant, changing opinions was important. My friends were intentionally seeking out people with differing opinions in order to argue with them. For me, that’s as bad as taunting someone into a fist fight.
Intentionally seeking out differences just to have an online argument seems silly sometimes, but it can get boring in an echo chamber. If you’ve ever been to a zoo, you’ve seen the enrichment toys that animals are given to stimulate their brain and make life a little more full. Zoo animals live in a space metaphorically akin to an echo chamber, with no real outside stimuli except for those toys. But, like Zabu’s ball in the video below, those toys often become a great source of entertainment.
Imagine that the ball in the video is opposing opinions, and the tiger is you and your echo chamber. Sure, you can bat it around and chase the other opinions all over the internet. But, you can’t really enjoy playing with the ball unless you understand how it rolls or bounces. Having a productive debate is the same way. It’s boring and nonsensical without at least a basic understanding of the other points of view. Teacher Development Trust has an article listing five different reasons why people may refuse to acknowledge other opinions on social media. Read it here, and learn a little bit about journalism too!
It would be unfair of me to call it out without acknowledging that I’ve been guilty of building my own echo chambers with punching bags made of causes I oppose. Not everyone does this search and destroy mission for opposing opinions, either. Whether or not you do, it’s important to remember that understanding is key to productive conversation.
At some point in life, everyone has been at that party or reception or graduation where they know about two people. Inevitably, awkward small talk occurs when you find yourself in an unfamiliar group. Sometimes the small talk goes well and you make new friends, other times not so much. The ‘not so much’ option usually happens when you hold extremely different views from the people you have been tossed in with. In public, in-person settings, it’s hard to avoid differing views than our own. But in our online lives, it’s much easier to hear and see only what we agree with. I’m writing this post because I want to talk about troubling trends I’ve been seeing on social media outlets like echo chambers and their effect.
First I want to define an echo chamber in the way I think of it in an online setting. To me, an echo chamber is tweaking what comes across your news feed or to your inbox to be only things that you agree with, or hold a similar opinion to. While it’s fine to like pages that you agree with the message of and search for things that you appreciate, there’s a big difference between showing support and being closed-minded.
Just want to interrupt myself to clarify here, I’m not calling anyone close-minded. I’m also not trying to call people out. I just want to make people aware of what we are doing to ourselves on social media.
We have a tendency to only want to hear what we agree with or like. Take it from Robert Cabrera, who wrote this article for The Odyssey called “Echo Chambers, Confirmation Bias And The Closing Of The American Mind”. Despite this tendency, in a climate of highly polarized issues and little to no middle ground, I have to wonder if we are making things harder for ourselves by neglecting to hear other perspectives. When I talk with someone about issues we disagree on, I find myself learning valid and factually backed arguments for their opinion. These facts may not change my mind, but the other person has educated me on another side of the issue. It has opened a door in the echo chamber. It’s as simple as following the President on Twitter, whether or not you support him, because you hear what he has to say. You don’t have to like what you read or hear, simple exposure to other ideas opens up your echo chamber.
If you’re not convinced you want to hear other opinions, look at it this way: learning other sides to a debate is also educational, and often encourages you find further support for your opinion. Still need more to crack open that door? This post by Emily Webber focuses on the importance of diversity of ideas and how it helps businesses succeed. (I highly recommend reading her blog–very well done).
I have more to say on this topic than I anticipated! Check back soon for part 2 to this post about weird things I’ve noticed on social media–like “militant close-mindedness”.