The echo chamber problem

In mid-September of 2017, ProPublica launched a study attempting to see whether Facebook users could be categorized and targeted for advertisements based solely off of ideological views – particularly, hateful or racist viewpoints. Using Facebook’s algorithms, ProPublica was able to target an ad directly at “Jew Haters,” causing a lot of stir in the conversation of social media’s effect on politics, eventually leading to CEO of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg, to make public statements denouncing neo-Nazism and assuring the press that Facebook was working to fix these issues.

From fake news to disappearing privacy, the continuing plunge into the information age has brought to light complex conversations regarding politics and public opinion. But while diffusion of false information and the inability to maintain a divide between personal and public are worthwhile discussions, a subtler threat to politics seems to be going more or less under the radar: echo chambers.

An echo chamber is a term referring to the tendency of people to surround themselves with others who agree with them, while disregarding or ignoring people who disagree. Often our social media filters away ideas or perspectives that we disagree with leaving only those which echo our own ideas back at us, boosting our confidence in our perspective.

Although this concept is often a buzzword in online political debates, it is rarely treated introspectively, often being a quick way to accuse someone of the opposing persuasion that they are limited in their perspective. Rarely do we consider ourselves lodged within an echo chamber, yet it appears we all are.

While ProPublica’s study is troubling because it reveals that algorithmic advertising can fuel racial hatred, it is also troubling because it shows that a world can be created within social media which echoes your demographic’s ideals back at you.

If racist organizations are using marketing with pinpoint accuracy to reach out to anti-Semites, there is a good chance that political organizations are also reaching out to those who share their views. We, the consumers, will block pages that we find disagree with us, like and share posts that do agree with us, and will eventually receive advertisements perfectly designed to feed our viewpoint. This reinforces our perspective and ostracizes those who don’t share our perspective. It doesn’t take long before we develop a perspective of “us vs. them.” We can dehumanize the out-group, and exalt our in-group without having to rationally defend our position.

As we move forward in our political climate, it is incredibly important that we prevent this in-group vs. out-group thinking.

While this doesn’t imply that we should give up our values or maintain a perfectly centrist view, it does mean that we should be willing to engage those who disagree with us, despite how frustrating or uncomfortable it can be.

The only thing more dangerous than a bad belief is a group thinking on your behalf. Break away from your echo chamber and begin a conversation with someone you disagree with.

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