The Echo Chamber of American Politics w/ Chris Bennett

The following is a piece written in collaboration with a friend and fellow student, Chris Bennett. Chris is currently a sophomore at UNC Chapel Hill, who is interested in studying geography. The following post in italics was written by Chris, whereas the regular font is written by myself.

Donald J. Trump will be the 45th president of the United States. Whether this leaves you confused, distraught and concerned or — instead — pleased, hopeful and excited for the future of our country, it is the democratic reality we face. So how did we get here? My answer: technology. More specifically, the echo chamber facilitated by that technology. I’m certainly not the first to think of this. The early days of the internet are a bit beyond my time. As I understand it, though, it was initially conceptualized as a marketplace of ideas, a sort of virtual library. You had to have a reason to access the web. The people who did have it would gather in forums and chat rooms to share experiences, knowledge and what they had learned from their tinkering. There was still novelty and we were still figuring out the technology itself.

In many ways, especially in academia, the internet continues to serve this function. But the emergence of various social networks in the early 2000s, namely Facebook, facilitated the construction of our own unique and divided realities — echo chambers. With the emergence of smart phones, we have these realities at our fingertips. Motivated in part by creating a pleasurable user experience (and, perhaps in greater part, by creating a profitable one), Facebook and similar technologies sort their users into demographics and then use algorithms to decide what the user is shown. Many have argued that by doing this, social media places a so-called “filter bubble” on our daily media intake. Facebook itself released research on this effect last year, research that the scientific community seemed to argue, despite methodological critiques, had one major takeaway: users’ news feeds were skewed, to some noteworthy degree, to their ideological preferences. The amount of this skew remains up for debate. For this reason, some research continues to dispute the “filter bubble” effect. Very probably the algorithms function in such a way that the degree of the skew varies from user to user.

Regardless of the degree of skew, we humans have a pretty well-documented psychological preference for concrete answers to our questions. The ideological skews created by emergent social media only facilitate this bias. It is this bias, this need for “cognitive closure,” that drives us away from ambiguous answers. That is all to say that we generally choose black and white over grey. Dangerously, as the cited article points out, we may not even realize how much we are biasing our own judgments.” In a new era where we are inundated with a semi-constant stream of new information, it is this cognitive bias that forces us to pick the simplest answers. We disregard the concerns of our peers — our fellow citizens — because there are parts of their agenda that we refuse to compromise. Rather than seeing our conservative peers as democratic actors, victim to neoliberalism and Trump’s dangerous rhetoric, we (the liberals) embody them as his rhetoric: bigots, racists, misogynists. Mind you, I am certain that is true of some — perhaps even many — of them. We have a right to stand where we do and fight for what we believe in. We have a right to be outraged, to be upset that our version of progress has come upon such a major (pun intended) wall. But just the same, those who helped to elect Trump, those who disagreed with us, deserve a chance to defend themselves. They deserve the opportunity prove they are not what they elected. When we refuse them that chance, we become victim to “cognitive closure” and scurry deeper into our echo chambers.

In simpler terms, what does this mean? By being so involved and enveloped with social media — particularly Facebook — we, the American people, are feeding into our biases, creating a sort of “echo chamber” that doesn’t give us the opportunity to hear what others have to say. Nor does it give us the chance to learn to be accepting of hearing others’ opinions, understanding where they come from on a persona level. Instead, we continually hear our own opinions, reflected back at us by people who believe the same things and, when we hear an opinion that is different from ours, we don’t know how to handle it.

With that being said, I wanted to offer some tips in order to help dilute this so-called echo chamber of American politics (and almost anything involving opinion) that has been created through our addictive use to social media.

1. Get off of Facebook.

It’s hard, I know. But Facebook, along with every other form of social media out there, is toxic. Our easy access to the site and its simple forms of communication are both addicting and narcissistic. This is why it’s so easy to simply jump on board every few minutes, checking in on your friends and family, and feeding into the bias of the similar views that most of your friends hold. Begin limiting yourself and understand that the world’s view isn’t represented on Facebook.

2. Take time to listen to other peoples’ opinions and views.

The problem that social media has given us today is a way to shut out those who have differing opinions from our own. In real life, we can’t simply “block” or “mute” those who we do not want to see or hear from. In order to understand someone else’s side, we must open our ears and listen — this does NOT mean interjection with our own opinions and debate. Hear them out. If their opinion is completely “bigoted,” then it’s so. If not, you took the chance to learn more about the opposing side’s views and their reasoning behind them.

3. Accept that not everyone who voted for Trump is “deplorable” and not everyone who voted for Clinton is “nasty.”

Whereas it’s easy to group people into categories based off of what their choice candidate was, let’s avoid doing that. It only cements this bipartisan viewpoint that we have as a country and that many of us accept is what is wrong with our modern-day government. Let’s not feed into stereotypes and label those who are different from us. Refer to the previous point for how to do that.

4. Know that you don’t have to compromise your own views in order to understand another’s.

Understanding isn’t a weakness. Taking time to understand someone else’s viewpoint isn’t going to devalue your opinions. Sadly, on social media today, it’s very hard to see this. Those who try to be understanding are almost immediately shut down by those who hold their same beliefs. This is not true in real-life, though. Learning to understand other’s reasoning will actually help you to grow as a person and your understanding of the world — not to mention, it will make you a generally happier person.

One thing I would like for you to take away from this article is this: yes, there are those with outrageous views who voted for a particular candidate. Hell, the KKK backs Donald Trump. HOWEVER, there are many more people who voted for who they did simply because of one small alignment of views. Don’t be quick to judge those who simply voted in what they believed to be their best interest.

Sadly, Facebook and other forms of social media have taught us to be more self-centered, posting selfies every day. They’ve taught us that we can be accessible, posting anything we want whenever we want in a split-second. And, most shockingly of all, they’ve taught us that those with different opinions do not deserve our ears or our time; instead, they are quickly shut out, regardless of the reasoning behind their views.

As my friend Davis put it the other night: “I don’t blame those who didn’t vote for Trump’s win. I blame Mark Zuckerberg.”

Photo Courtesy of: Frydolin via Wikimedia Commons




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