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Project Manager II, TELUS Wise
In the past several years, divisiveness has bubbled up as one of the most troubling social dilemmas. Polarity in global politics and the pandemic collided in a perfect storm. Cooperative discourse and debate were often replaced by an us vs. them mindset. And social media hasn’t helped.
Social media platforms make money primarily through ad revenue; the more time we spend on them, the more ads we see, and the more money they make. That’s where algorithms come in. Algorithms enable the platforms to deliver content tailored to user preferences and this is why so much of our social media feeds include ads and new stories that align with content we’ve interacted with and consumed before.
And if left unchecked, it can create a social media echo chamber.
What is it?
According to online educator GFC Global, “an echo chamber is an environment where a person only encounters information or opinions that reflect and reinforce their own. Echo chambers can create misinformation and distort a person’s perspective, so they have difficulty considering opposing viewpoints and discussing complicated topics.”
When you add in confirmation bias (the tendency to favour information that reinforces existing beliefs) and proprietary algorithms meant to keep you engaged as long as possible, you end up scrolling through a feed filled with content that aligns with your current world view. In that situation, you miss out on alternative perspectives, which can limit diversity of thought and possibly lead to further polarization.
What are the dangers?
While social media offers greater access to more information, it is also full of misinformation, which can accentuate division and polarization.
In a March 2023 Windsor Star interview, former deputy Prime Minister of Canada John Manley commented on echo chambers, social media misinformation and political division.
In his view, “we don’t move ahead as a society when we play up our differences. Particularly when we discredit those we see as different or on the other side.”
Wired takes that idea one step further in its January 2023 article titled, The Small But Mighty Danger of Echo Chamber Extremism. While the incidence of people operating in completely isolated political media bubbles/echo chambers is only four percent, there is still a threat.
According to the article, “If people are only hearing opinions they already agree with or seeing stories that align with their worldview, they may become more entrenched in their beliefs, whether or not their beliefs reflect the real world. They may also become easier to manipulate and more extreme.”
Magdalena Wojcieszak, a professor of communication at the University of California, Davis, comments in the article on the consequences of “going down rabbit holes.” She says, “It makes you more extreme or polarized. It reinforces your attitudes. It also reinforces your sense of belonging to this group, and it reinforces your negativity and hostility toward other groups. You think you’re the legitimate one, the good one, the virtuous one. The others are evil.”
Avoiding the social media echo chamber
The first step in avoiding getting trapped in a social media echo chamber is to recognize if you’re in one. There are two key signs:
If you find yourself getting only one side of a story, there are ways to balance out your feed and your perspectives:
Social media can be an incredibly powerful tool for learning, education, discourse and community building. But balance is critical. With so much polarization happening around us, it is up to each one of us to consume social media responsibly and contribute to an environment that promotes unity rather than division.
Questioning the validity of information you’re seeing online? Do some research to debunk any misinformation. This quiz tests your knowledge about “fake news” and recommends best practices to avoid it.