breaking out of the social media echo chamber

Do we have a responsibility to look more closely at the media hubs we dismiss as toxic?

by Royce Kurmelovs
Nov 21 2016, 1:35am

Donald Trump is a man facing 75 separate lawsuits, whose rhetoric on the campaign trail tapped into the darkest elements of American life. Hillary Clinton is first woman to run for President of the United States whose campaign could have demolished the highest glass ceiling and proved anything was possible. To most voters and observers under 30, the choice was obvious.

Then came November 8. Few could have predicted what was to happen — especially the 55 per cent of Millennials who voted Hillary.

When the votes were tallied, Donald Trump's election felt like such a shock; in part because it didn't fit within the self-curated, personalised media utopia we'd created for ourselves. In 2016, everything we watch, read or listen to reflects our own view about the way the world should be — and nothing had prepared us for this.

The shock was intense and immediate; Lena Durham wept until she broke out in hives, and many cried with her. As Erin Gloria Ryan summed it up, the election of Donald Trump marked the first time Millennials, who came of age in the Obama era, experienced such a major political defeat.

Ever since the internet opened up news media and the flow of information, individuals have gravitated towards ever more niche silos of information. It started when the right claimed Fox News and the left flocked to The Guardian. Now the alt-right share Breitbart media while the radical left stick to Twitter. Facebook's algorithm decides whose posts get seen, by whom, and when. Anyone who disagrees, or ventures into a media stream that's not their usual, gets shamed in the comments thread.

Things got so bad during the US election, The Wall Street Journal illustrated the point by publishing a live stream of what Democrat and Republican newsfeeds look like, side-by-side. Reviewing it now, it's clear the world was watching two very different elections.

In the weeks since the results, these closed systems (combined with the ease with which information travels over social media) have taken much of the blame for Trump's election and the left's inability to see it coming. Nieman Lab's Joshua Benton described Facebook as a "sewer of misinformation" during the election, using the example of how a fake story about the Pope giving Trump his endorsement received 26 times more shares than a story correcting the information.

How do you step outside a world you've meticulously, and unconsciously, made for yourself? 

As a business model, lies sell because social media caters to the way we feel the world should work, instead of the way it is. We're infuriated by fake information we see online, but carry it, and our emotional response, into our very real lives. This effect is so powerful at shaping public opinion that Russia has internet troll factories to harness it and let Putin shape opinions on the internet.

It's a toxic system that champions misinformation, but also allows us to live inside our own constructed media fantasies, never venturing out to engage with the world as it is. Or, in the case of this month's election, leaves us ignorant of feelings of rage and dissatisfaction swirling around us.

But how do you step outside a world you've meticulously, and unconsciously, made for yourself? Do we have a responsibility to look more closely at the media hubs we dismiss as toxic?

The task is more difficult than it sounds: many of the problems related to social media and how we use it are inherent to the platforms. Twitter began as a forum that stops any conversation longer than 140 characters and while it has since opened itself up images and videos, it's still going to reward biting snark over dialogue any day.

Cutting through the social media echo chamber doesn't mean hugging an internet troll, or watching hours of Fox News. 

Facebook may argue its network encourages greater diversity in opinion, but it also limits the visibility of your posts to friends you interact most with. You're put in front of people you grew up with, went to school and uni with, entered the workforce with, who will inevitably be viewing the world from the same, or similar perspective.

But it's not an unfixable situation. One suggested solution has been to follow the accounts of smart people whose positions you disagree with, or to actively cultivate more diverse Facebook friends, like James West at Mother Jones who has been making an experiment out of adding Trump supporters. That said cutting through the social media echo chamber doesn't mean hugging an internet troll, or watching hours of Fox News. What it may mean is resisting the urge to block and delete at the first sign of dissent.

As a general rule, even the guy ranting incoherently about Hillary's emails or ISIS or Social Justice Warriors is going tell you something about what is being discussed in their part of the world, or how they may have gotten there.

Not everyone who voted for Trump is an extremist who hates globalisation and social progress. They were also caught up in their own social media echo chamber. Many had genuine concerns about watching their communities die and their standard of living drop. Trump seemed to understand their fears and offered something different. His approach might be deeply flawed, but he saw something in our neighbours we ignored.

The next four years are going to be tough, and the progressive-liberal side of politics better be ready to get into the rough and tumble of what comes next. Our Tweets didn't save the world in the way we want them to, so now we need to consider logging off, stepping away from the keyboard, speaking to each other directly and getting constructive.

Correcting the minutia of someone's politics in a comment thread doesn't educate them, it makes them feel dumb. It's not how you start dialogs, it's how you alienate people.

If diversity, inclusivity and equality are the values that define Millennial politics, and are values worth fighting for, they have to include everyone. You can't change the world if you don't bring everybody along for the ride.


Text Royce Kurmelovs
Image by Gage Skidmore, via Flickr Creative Commons

Donald Trump
Social Media
us election
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