Breaking Out of Our Echo Chambers

By Dan Meisel   |   January 11, 2022

A few winters ago, my son dared me to ski through an oversized doghouse meant for snowboarders. I was feeling old and particularly vulnerable to youthful dares. To my surprise, the floor of this structure was arched, sloping towards the walls on both sides. As soon as I entered, my skis veered in opposite directions. The result was painful and took a while to heal.

I’m seeing a similarly painful split occurring on social media – members of our community enter that space and go sliding off in opposite directions. Three particular problems stand out: silofication, amplification, and normalization. All three are painful and will take time and effort to heal.

Silos and the echo chambers they generate are probably the most obvious issue, but the extent of the problem may be worse than most people realize. Around 70% of adults are active on at least one social media platform. With very little moderation of its content, social media platforms have expanded access to information and a diversity of viewpoints, but too few of us are accessing that diversity of viewpoints. Instead, we are following like-minded messengers, connecting with and seeking sources with whom we agree, and spending our chat time in groups that feel supportive of our individual perspectives.

A larger problem, however, is that we are fed different facts. Some 43% of adults cite social media as their primary source of news, and the quality of that news varies widely. Content has increasingly come not from mainstream media sources, but from bloggers or e-magazines with clear political agendas and no primary sources. They often include facts clearly refuted elsewhere and unsupported conclusions posed as facts, leading their readers into different and often competing realities. It is no wonder we are polarized. We are not operating from the same information.

Add to that the problem of amplification. Disinformation online spreads far faster than accurate information — partly because we are drawn to drama, but largely because the most popular social media platforms use algorithms designed to keep us engaged. If we click to see some drama, they bombard us with invitations into ever deeper rabbit holes. Facebook itself admitted in a recently disclosed 2019 internal memo that its “core product mechanics” had contributed to the growth of disinformation and hate speech on its platform.

Silofication and amplification are particularly pernicious with respect to hate speech. We at ADL talk about the importance of responding to hate incidents with a combination of communal condemnation and meaningful engagement. It is important the condemnation comes from a diversity of voices to express the extent to which the entire community disapproves of the conduct.

Social media platforms provide the opposite of an appropriate response. Rather than communal condemnation, posters of disinformation and hateful messaging in online silos often encounter validation.

Which leads to the problem of normalization. The sheer volume of disinformation, negativity, and hateful messaging far exceeds the platforms’ ability to enforce their own user guidelines. According to documents uncovered by whistleblower Frances Haugen, Facebook acted on as little as 3 to 5% of all hateful content on the platform. It may have missed over a billion pieces of hate content.

So how do we give this doghouse walls to contain our split? Changing our own “user” behavior would make the greatest impact. Whether in person or online, we can and should seek opposing perspectives, question unsupported assumptions made by our friends or the articles they forward and consider a messenger’s agenda when assessing the reliability of their facts.

It is also time for legislation to catch up with the technology both to protect the public and to help us understand how platforms’ practices are affecting society. California Assembly Bill 587, known as the “Social Media Transparency Act,” would require the largest social media companies to disclose how they define hate speech, moderate hateful content, and assesses the efficacy of those efforts.

Our community and our country are clearly in the midst of painful polarization, but we can realign our factual realities and work together towards constructive solutions to our disagreements.

Dan Meisel is the Regional Director of Anti-Defamation League Santa Barbara/Tri-Counties


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