I am not the first one to write about this, but I am completely atoned with this explanation of the results of the US elections that took place a couple of weeks ago. Actually, I was flattered to see that my sudden realization coincided with the opinions of established professionals and analysts from across the world. Nonetheless, why did it take us so long to realize what social media is doing to us?
Why is it that we were so shocked by the results of these elections? Why is it that there is so much disconnect between the two competing parties, in spite of the increasing means of communication and information gathering that are within everybody’s reach?
Well, those means of communication seem to be the very problem.
The Echo Chamber Theory
Social media, a service that we are so fond of and that we so overly use, started out as a means of increasing ties between people and spreading information across communities but now seems to have evolved into a prison of ideas and a mere “echo chamber” that we all feel trapped in. Meanwhile, every service industry around us seems to have turned into an “on demand” service rather than a generic one, thus encouraging us into becoming spoiled egotistic individuals with little regard to everybody else’s preferences.
“An echo chamber is a space in which we tend to hear or see or think only what we project. What we’re hearing is not what it is out there but an echo of our own ideas and thoughts and phrases. Your Facebook friends are the walls of your echo chamber. Your Twitter followers are the amplifiers of your own thoughts.” (source article here) We no longer search for answers, broadening our worldview, learning on the internet, but we are looking for peers, communities and people that share our exact views, and we finish up simply dismissing any contrariness.
That is not to say that we do this all the time and that the Internet and the social media have turned us overnight into self-loading pricks and narcissistic sociopaths, but, on really sensitive issues, such as politics, religion or moral issues, we play it safe by agreeing to disagree. We no longer try to preach our truths to those around us because any single individual that is exposed to the internet is overflowed with trumpeting truths. As a result, people grew tired of listening while expressing strong opinions, let-aside upright preaching, seized to be deemed socially acceptable.
Instead, to fulfill our intellectual thirst for debate and argumentation, we go to established online communities that will fuel our hunches, will give us all the reasons we need to take the decisions we wanted in the first place, to fulfill our own prophecies. We no longer feel the need to belong in our physical communities, because there is always an online community that will tell you that you have all the right in the world to be in dissonance with your surroundings. As a matter of fact, this is becoming quite fashionable. Nowadays, we all want to be divergent, far away from mainstream.
On the other hand, we had all these polls telling us that President Trump is not going to happen, while it did happen so convincingly after all. Many allude to the spiral of silence, but I would dare to say that polls are simply obsolete instruments. Actually, I have a hunch that statistics don’t work the same way anymore, and should be reconsidered. It is no longer enough to have a random sample of less than 2000 respondents and it is no longer working to ask people what their voting behavior would be, because they know the rules of the polling game a little too well.
Voters should not be polled anymore but they should be observed. In this respect, I am sure that social media big data is already capable of predicting election outcomes far better than any statistical model. The question is, should they?
To go back to our point here, another important issue is whether social media is indeed contributing to the build up of our echo chambers; and the answer is by all means YES. In their quest to make their platforms more enjoyable, tech giants and algorithm coders will perfect their skills so that they will always be able to give you only the information you want to read. Which would not be entirely bad if that wold not mean artificially minimizing your exposure to opposing viewpoints. As a consequence, it is completely plausible that families can develop over time dissimilar worldviews influenced by something as mundane as their social media feeds.
“Fueled by validation, our social media interaction is merely a masturbatory process, in which we look for gratification, not for information.” (The Most Upsetting Consequences of Social Media“)
Well, and now what?
In the end, let us try to be a little constructive here and give at least a few suggestions on future ways to preserve our objectivity in an increasingly biased Internet:
2. Two thirds of Facebook users get their news on the platform. Please stop this if you are doing it too and want to stay informed.
3. Engage with real people in real conversations and be curios about the reasons they have certain opinions. Do not be judgmental, be empathetic. Try to express your opinions in a considerate manner.
4. Read the classics. Whether you are interested in politics, religion, fashion or architecture, even as a hobby, do your homework and get your points of reference straight. That will make you less manipulable and a little more aware of deception in your field of interest. This will also make you more able to choose your sources wisely.
5. Ask more questions and question things less. That is to say, be more curious and less critical of your surroundings. If we all tried to do this, the world wold be a much happier place.