Escaping Our Digital Echo Chambers
During this lockdown, we’re over-exposed to content that reinforces our beliefs, blinding us from seeing the other side of the coin.
The everyday slights, indignities, put downs and insults that people of colour, women, LGBT populations or those who are marginalized experiences in their day-to-day interactions with people.
Approaching the end of lockdown, I think it’s fair to say that things won’t exactly be the same as they were before.
Rituals like handshakes with acquaintances might be left behind as relics of the past. Designer face masks are already making a timely appearance, and extended periods of isolation have led the best of us to reflect on our lives and make changes moving forwards in an uncertain future.
Hypothesising about media consumption in the post-lockdown world, I’ve become increasingly concerned about the influence of 'digital echo chambers' in the formation of our belief systems and opinions.
Simply put, what I mean by 'echo chambers' is the reinforcing loop of beliefs, ideas, and impressions developed from the entertainment and media we have been consuming at this time.
From the people we follow on social media, to the algorithms which have learned so much about the content we like to consume on YouTube, our consumption has become more tailored to our interests than it ever has been before.
No doubt, the majority of the population have been reliant on technology to communicate with the outer world. Social media, in particular, has played a huge role not just in connecting us with others, but discovering news, and raising awareness to social and moral causes.
The latter of which demonstrates an uprising of belated discussions about racism, sexism, and criticism of increasingly authoritarian regimes in the government’s handling of Coronavirus. Which of course, are all important subjects to discuss.
But my concern is that our digital echo chambers may result in a polarisation of our beliefs - where we are exposed only to a biased perspective as a result of the content we like and follow, perhaps misleading us to believe the information we are consuming is ‘neutral’, or 'obviously true' compared to the other side of the coin.
But this isn’t a novel suggestion. Many writers have discussed the existence of echo chambers pre-lockdown, and the potential harms it may have on wider society (particularly on the formulation of political belief, which might jeopardise democracy).
Since its conception, social media has always aroused suspicion. In the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandals, where Facebook played a big part in compromising democracy in elections, it rang alarm bells for many in understanding how social media could permanently alter electoral results by manipulation of user data, rather than the traditional person to person discourse expected in representative democracy.
A growing concern many have with echo chambers is that people are almost completely exposed to the opinions of their friends and people they like, suggesting a lack of “cross-cutting” content that opposes one's preference of beliefs and opinions.
For example, if they prefer right-wing politics, they are likely to have friends who share right-wing posts, follow right-wing politicians, and have their feeds subjected to an algorithm that only suggests more right-wing content.
Traditionally, publications often align with particular political parties or tend to be left/right-leaning, so some could argue that consuming content based on one’s beliefs and opinions, predates the existence of social media.
But there are still news outlets considered ‘neutral’ by comparison. Even with politically aligned publications, there is still often coverage of content demonstrating both sides of a political debate. Most readers recognise the importance to consume information that opposes their currently-held beliefs.
I believe many of us still have that same desire to encounter content that challenges our beliefs, so we can learn, grow, and develop our opinions further. And yes, it’s still possible to encounter content on Instagram that challenges our opinions - even if we don't choose to follow it.
But recommendation algorithms on social media platforms can make us lazy and dependent on consuming the content that appears on our news feeds and timelines. It requires little effort, allowing us to believe a lot of what we read without fact-checking.
In our desire to discuss important subjects about racism and sexism, we might be rapidly undervaluing the necessity of scepticism in the content we read and share with others, which has the potential to severely undermine the power of our voices.
Or maybe, there’s nothing to worry about.
Some believe the idea (and supposed consequences) of echo chambers is blown out of proportion, lacking substantial evidence of its supposed Earth-shattering destruction of democracy.
A report by The Knight Foundation fittingly titled, ‘Avoiding the Echo Chamber About Echo Chambers’, argues that most people, even those who tend to “consume more ideologically extreme information sources seem to encounter cross-cutting content along the way”.
Sweeping generalisations have been made about how the election of former US President Donald Trump was solely down to the growing influence of echo chambers on social media platforms.
But research included in the report suggests that election results are often always due to a complex tapestry of factors, and the claim it is exclusively because of echo chambers, are mostly unsubstantiated.
Though I agree with many of the claims in the report, such as the fact that the majority of the population tend to consume an eclectic range of news sources, rather than solely relying on social media as a source of information, I noticed some limitations.
They were unable to study how the algorithms included in social media platforms worked, and therefore unable to measure the influence of algorithms recommending content catering towards the user’s interests and beliefs.
This is because, according to them, the technology used by Facebook is “proprietary”, meaning they could not obtain permission to accurately understand how they worked.
Furthermore, the report was published in 2018 and seemed to mostly account for particular demographics - namely, the Millennial generation or older.
The research they included seemed to support the case that people in these demographics are generally sceptical of consuming news from social media - which makes sense because they can recall a news climate before the internet, and generally still value the editorial standards of traditional publications today.
So it makes sense that older people's ‘media diets’ are balanced, and unlikely to use platforms that are mostly algorithmic like Facebook, Instagram, and Tik-Tok (which wasn’t as prominent in 2018 as it is now).
Despite this, the report concludes with an acknowledgement that:
“Though the phenomena of selective exposure are less widespread than feared, the potential for a balkanised future remains.”
And indeed, much has changed since the publication of this report in 2018.
Machine-learning algorithms learn the content you like. The more you watch YouTube, the more data is learned about you to suggest videos that you might like. Since binge-watching has become a national activity, we can conclusively say algorithms have learned much more about everyone in this past year.
Research in 2020 enquiring into how much Gen-Z uses social media platforms as news sources, concluded that “over a quarter of respondents used Instagram to access news content within the last week, while 19% used Snapchat and 6% turned to TikTok. In comparison, only 17% used newspapers to access information.”
This suggests an unsurprising trend - that newer generations are unlikely to regularly read newspapers and magazines, compared to opening Instagram or TikTok on their phones.
News magnates like Rupert Murdoch and Andrew Neil are soon to be starting their own news channels in England, to fulfil what they believe is a gap in the market for an English right-leaning news outlet rivalling the BBC.
This suggests that the demand for neutral news outlets might be changing all across the board, in favour of 'alternative media' suited towards sub-cultures.
So there is a significant lack of friction and exposure to opinions and beliefs that challenge one’s belief system outside of phone screens, meaning polarisation of one’s belief is more likely than ever before.
It is safe to say that with these recent developments, media diets are becoming even more concentrated on one’s beliefs and preferences. If you are Gen-Z, you are likely in an echo chamber on social media platforms without realising the extent of it. This in turn develops a dangerous catalyst for developing biases and prejudices.
On top of that, Gen-Z has become accustomed to consuming short-form content over long-form content - exemplified by shareable messages and infographics on social media, rather than reading and engaging with full articles.
That isn't necessarily a bad thing, but it leaves more room for assumptions and less precedence on fact-checking.
The report by The Knight Foundation analysed the influence of echo chambers in respect to democracy and political choices (since most of the people writing it originated from an academic political background).
I agree ultimately that political opinions will always encounter opposition, and it’s an oversimplification to say echo chambers are mostly or solely responsible for political outcomes.
But I think echo chambers could have wide-reaching consequences than shaping political opinion. I think it has a major influence in determining and perpetuating the formation of deeply held beliefs, particularly in younger people who are still developing their belief systems and sense of identity.
In discussions about misogyny after the disappearance of Sarah Everard, or racism after George Floyd, it’s easy to over-delight in the joys that a platform exists including young people discussing previously taboo subjects. You might think that being a 'radical anti-racist and anti-sexist can only be a good thing.
But if radicalisation necessarily means an extremity to one side of the spectrum, regardless of the cause, it permits ignorance which is problematic to serious discourse.
Now, that isn't to say that we need to hear a sexist opinion from a misogynistic man to ‘balance’ our anti-sexist opinions in the pursuit of neutrality.
But what about those who may have an unpopular and contrary opinion to these subjects? Those who have minor doubts about certain concepts in the Black Lives Matter movement or feminism, who are afraid to voice their true feelings in fear of being cancelled or shunned?
Regardless of whether we consider this fringe candidate to be right or wrong, I can’t help but notice some of the negatives starting to crop up.
Not only are we consuming and sharing preferred content among our circles (without much scepticism), but we could be disenfranchising those who have differing opinions to us - by adopting a tunnel-vision into our beliefs that prevent us from seeing some of the flaws in our arguments.
We can have fact-after-fact ready about police brutality in America, or how systemic misogyny prevails in the West. And for the sake of argument, these facts could all be completely true and verified.
But being polarised into these beliefs can leave us out of touch with White people who have questions about privilege, or men who may not understand the fundamentals of gender theory.
If we want to make a difference, these are the very people we should be speaking to - not those who already agree with us.
In my opinion, regardless of how strongly we believe something to be true, no position is unconditionally correct. Once we start to blindly subscribe to ideologies with complete confidence, we become incredulous and dangerously willing to ignore flaws in our opinions necessary for building stronger beliefs.
We share content for our followers who often always agree with us, and if you disagree with someone, you can just unfollow them and go about your day like it never happened. If someone disagrees with you, they can unfollow you just as easily.
So we prevent others from casting doubts on our cherished beliefs or making genuine criticisms - it’s quick to be offended when someone challenges the idea of White privilege, and brand them as racist.
But a better approach is to actively engage in discussions with those who disagree with us to make a holistic difference.
The further this continues, the more alienated those with differing views feel. The outcasted White man may get involved with alt-right-leaning groups, radicalising his opinions and finding a sense of community where he was previously just misguided.
General discourse between two opposing views could become far less frequent, leading to radicalised sub-communities of people isolated from each other. Worryingly, this isolation in our wider community could escalate even after lockdown is over until we are only in the company of people who reinforce our beliefs.
Of course, this is all hypothetical. But I think it’s a real concern. The lack of interaction with people from different backgrounds and communities has to lead me to worry about the social climate after lockdown.
Don’t get me wrong, most people are excited to meet with others again. Not just their friends and family, but fresh faces. The experience of meeting someone new is something I’m sure we have all felt starved from.
But in a social climate where we have all been consuming our specialised media diets for over a year, will we want to listen and debate with someone who presents a differing opinion to us?
Especially when we (and everyone else) might think they are “obviously right”, due to the plethora of facts and knowledge we have learned from our echo chambers?
I admit that I could be completely paranoid here.
But if a concern about echo chambers had been brewing for a while, and since then we've been dependent on machine-learning algorithms during an era where humans have been quarantined with technology for the first time, I think it’s at least worth raising the concern.
So if what I have said is true, the question that remains is:
The Knight Foundation report gave me confidence in believing that most Millennials and older generations don’t solely rely on social media to get their news. Apart from some racist Boomers re-sharing mildly bigoted posts on Facebook, I don’t think they are as vulnerable to this problem as our generation.
That isn’t to say that Generation Z is brain-dead as a result of primarily using social media as a news source. Not at all. More than other generations, we are exposed to more information than ever before, and our desire to discussing these very real issues demonstrates a willingness to learn more.
If you follow the right places, social media is advantageous in raising awareness towards international events and local issues, like the farmer’s protest in India quite a while before major outlets like the BBC did.
Gen-Z influencers have also criticised governmental institutions like the UK police for preventing the vigil of Sarah Everard, and the US police for their continuous brutality towards Black people.
But therein lies the problem.
How can you know if you’re following the right places, which prioritises scepticism, fact-checking, and upholding editorial values in the pursuit of truth?
Instagram doesn't allow you to hyperlink sources in posts, and I doubt many people research what they have read before sharing it on their story.
Of course, we don’t have to be obsessive about it. But if we continue to make exceptions in verifying our sources, very soon we will accept misinformation that leans towards our biases with open arms. I would argue this is probably already happening.
A great deal of faith is required that someone else has done their research before creating the content that eventually thousands share, and in most instances, I highly doubt that's the case.
The good news is that breaking free from our echo chambers begins with a basic intention - to be sceptical of everything one reads, regardless of preconceived notions, and how much one already agrees with what is being said.
When we leave lockdown very soon, I encourage you to bring up these important subjects with those you expect to disagree with you. If you silence yourself as a result of avoiding awkward confrontation, then it might be worth asking yourself how much you claim to believe something in the absence of sycophancy.