Search online for any major news topic, from the coronavirus to the upcoming presidential election, and you are bound to encounter polarization. Nowadays, it is much more common to see groups that hold strong, contrasting beliefs than people whose beliefs fall “in the middle” on different topics.
While there are many factors that contribute to this polarization, one major cause is the ease of access to online “echo chambers.” Echo chambers, which are groups or situations where individuals’ beliefs are reflected and magnified by people sharing similar views, are easier to find now than ever before.
They are most commonly seen when people only follow or friend like-minded individuals on social media platforms, causing them to only see posts and information that amplifies their own beliefs, but these echo chambers also occur when websites use algorithms to help present people with news based on their previous searches, likes, and preferences.
The impact of echo chambers
While it can be beneficial for people to communicate and connect with people who share their beliefs on various topics, it is important for these individuals to escape this bubble and gain perspective and information from people with opposing points of view.
When people do not search for information outside of echo chambers, they risk two major issues:
One of the more serious impacts of echo chambers is that they have the tendency to negatively impact the way people are able to communicate and relate with one another. When people are constantly surrounded by people and news that supports their own beliefs, they have the potential to start treating these amplified beliefs as truth.
In her TED Talk, “On Being Wrong,” author and self-titled “Wrongologist” Kathryn Schulz notes that when people believe their own ideology is the only perfect reality, they are likely to assume that those who disagree with them are either ignorant of the truth or “deliberately distorting it for their own malevolent purposes.”
When people have this mindset, it makes it difficult for them to communicate with people across the aisle, and it can decrease their potential to empathize or try to relate with people who hold opposite points of view.
Spreading fake news
Another issue that stems from online echo chambers is the spread of fake news. Ideally, the internet is a resource that individuals can use to look up facts from a variety of sources and communicate with people who hold a variety of beliefs and use this information to inform their opinions.
However, thanks to the echo chambers that exist within social media platforms, polarizing websites, and various online groups, people are more likely to find themselves engaging with groups of like-minded people and receiving information that reflects their own ideological preferences. When people do not search for information outside of their online echo chambers, they are likely to view, share, and believe information that is shared within their own online groups.
This becomes problematic when misinformation is shared within these groups. If false information is believed to be true, it can be spread quickly among individuals who are a part of these echo chambers, which contributes to the prevalence of fake news on the internet.
So, what can we do about it?
People of the internet, what we can do about it is simply this: get a little uncomfortable.
Diversify where you get your information, talk to people in real life about current issues, and remember to fact check anything you see on social media. By doing these things, you decrease the likelihood that you will only hear or share one side of the story.
In the same way, instead of unfollowing or blocking people who disagree with you, try to listen to what other sides have to say. Prioritize your health, safety, and wellbeing first, but when you can, allow people with different perspectives to share why they think the way they do without judgment. You just might find you have more in common with “the enemy” than you thought! Something as simple as being nice to people (including people you disagree with) can go a long way toward stopping misinformation, preventing echo chambers, and making life a little better for everyone involved.
If we really want to decrease polarization and prevent spreading misinformation, it is crucial for everyone to try to recognize and avoid echo chambers when they spend time online. The more you get out of your comfort zone, the more likely you are to succeed at it!