By: Kevin Tang
In 2018, our political climate is marked by polarizing rhetoric on both sides of the political spectrum. While we tend to blame those in Washington for dividing America in two, there is another reason for this internal discord – ourselves. From social media to news outlets, we often shut ourselves in echo chambers.
So first, what are echo chambers? Literally, they mean an enclosed space where sound reverberates. But in terms of media, Oxford Dictionary explains that they are environments in which people encounter only beliefs or opinions that coincide with their own, so that their existing views are reinforced and alternative ideas are not considered. For instance, an example would be if a left-leaning person were to only read liberal news sources while avoiding any conservative news sources. All social media and news outlets we use are potential types of echo chambers that we can put ourselves in.
The explanation for this phenomenon is straightforward. We tend to enclose themselves in echo chambers because we like hearing what we want to hear. Also, we feel more confident that our opinions are accepted by others in the echo chamber.
However, these echo chambers have silent, pernicious effects. When we surround ourselves with ideas that are similar to our own in echo chambers, we succumb to groupthink, taking everything we read and see as fact. This dangerous cycle entrenches false rumors and lies since we often don’t take the time to independently verify what we read.
Statistical data already empirically proves this phenomenon. In a 2016 study published in the Journal of Social and Political Psychology, Swedish researchers analyzed 700,000 posts written on an right wing forum. The results were shocking: it took only six months for the average community member to adopt the forum’s radical opinions and go from “I” to “We.” As the study concludes, it saw “a shift toward a collective identity among participants, and a stronger differentiation between the own group and the outgroup(s).”
But this sort of “mob mentality” isn’t just exclusive to alt-right forums; rather, these sorts of echo chambers occur across the entire political spectrum.
And once readers succumb to this groupthink, they accept everything as hard fact, including blatant lies. But what is even worse is that echo chambers kill our discourse and dialogue. As people begin to latch onto their personal beliefs, they refuse to engage with conflicting opinions. In fact, a study published in Information, Communication, & Society journal concluded that “[social networking service] use has a direct, negative relationship to willingness to discuss a political issue in offline, face-to-face contexts.” Only three percent of Americans participate in “formal, real-time, online deliberation.” That means 97% of us don’t. Think about it: when was the last time you consciously sought a person with different beliefs and tried to civilly dialogue about polarizing political issues, like gun control and abortion?
Despite the plethora of multifaceted opinions offered by the incredible world that the Internet created, we overwhelming choose to latch onto narrow viewpoints that we want to hear.
Instead, we must learn to engage in and read up on opposing viewpoints, not to respond or scorn at, but to listen and understand. After reading anything online, we should be asking ourselves important questions: Is this really true? Who wrote this? What potential bias could be coming out of this piece? Only when we do this can we build a more educated and inclusive society. We have to stop viewing issues as black and white, but rather, as shades of gray. Recognizing that no one issue has a clear cut solution helps us widen our often narrow perspectives which broadens societal inclusion as a whole.
At the end of the day, don't be afraid to question anything in life. Even if you feel like it's a “dumb” question, ask it. The more you learn, the less “dumb” questions you will have, so ask away. But most importantly, learn to be prepared for the answer, too. It may not be what you want to hear, but that’s the truth. The plain truth.