Cyber (In)Activism: The Dangers of Echo Chambers

This is my mom.

When she was in university, conducting research and writing papers, she had to rely on encyclopedias, research publications, academic journals, and news articles. All in print, in one place, at one time. She would have go to the library and physically engage in research.

This is me.

I can access databases and documents, sort through journal titles and narrow search parameters until I find the information I’m looking for- all without leaving my desk. I obviously don’t just use google, that would be in poor academic taste, but the main difference I am highlighting here, is a change of technology, and with that change of technology, a change in method of research and information sharing.

Where my mom was dependent on cataloging systems, library expertise, and her own sheer determination, my ability to research is dependent on my access to databases and search engines, otherwise, I’m just standing in a library, a million times the size of the one my mom used.

I like to think of the internet as a city, a sprawling world, a teeming center of resources, information, and people, with unique addresses, districts, and even popular tourist sites.

But like every city, every newcomer has a navigation problem, and with so much to see, having search engine information centers can really help us to find what we are looking for- this is a great example of a service that exists in the virtual world.

But now we are talking about more than internet as city, as a simple landscape to navigate. We are talking about the buildings within that city, properties and shops with bills to pay and dreams of making it big. In short, we are talking about services that exist because we can make use of them, but also services that need to generate income while fending off competitors.

Now, believe it or not, googling recipes and conducting research aren’t the only reasons people go on the internet.

I grew up in a town of three thousand people. A town that size can only capture so much diversity, so even though I was waking up at all hours to watch the Wimbledon and the Australian Open, no amount of love for tennis on my part could change the fact that we simply didn’t have the numbers or the interest to create a club. For a small town kid like me, the city wasn’t just a bustling center of business, it also represented the idea and the dream of connecting with a like-minded community in a socially-loaded landscape of opportunities and profiles.

But the trick then becomes finding the profiles, the communities. Here too, the internet as a city is no different. I moved into a 3 bedroom apartment on the north side of Edmonton and while I failed to connect with my random smattering of neighbors, I was able to use established institutions in the city to search for a community. Universities, bars, bookstores, and beer league sports teams created the foundation for my community in the physical world.

Online, we use social media platforms to find and engage with our chosen communities, and given the vast sprawl that is the internet, we are able to negate time and space as social obstacles. Think of Facebook as a city venue, a social hall that allows us to both maintain connections as well as develop new ones. So like the search engine information centers, these social buildings exist because they fulfill a demand, but they also need to generate income while fending off competitors.

Now here’s the catch, and the biggest difference between how we understand the physical world and how we understand the internet.

We assume that we are being exposed to an incredibly broad range of information and perspectives, of which we never would’ve found on our own. And while you are certainly going to encounter a larger amount of information and profiles the more time you spend roving the internet, it is simply false to assume that you are necessarily experiencing a broader range.

You see, internet services, like Facebook and google, have something to lose in losing your interest and something to gain in holding it. Notice how your sidebar is full of what pop-culture has deemed relevant, while your newsfeed is teeming with stories and links that Facebook thinks you will like? Keyword here is like. Disguised as a “helping to make your experience better” tactic, in reality this is just a way of honing in on your interests in the name of capital. We are living in the age of contested attention, where the weight of your gaze can turn a profit and the more time you spend engaging with a platform and its content, the more successful this platform becomes. Why would Facebook or Google start recommending content that contrasts your tastes? They profit on your satisfaction, your clicks and your sharing, and since we tend to like the things we like, these platforms use algorithms to cater to your needs. And yet, in their pursuit for profit via user engagement, these algorithms are creating powerful echo chambers- epistemic blinders for users who don’t realize they might only be seeing half the picture.

And suddenly, the vast city that I have been calling the internet, begins to shrink, and while these algorithms have been playing their part for at least 5 years, the recent American election revealed just how powerful and restrictive these echo chambers can be within virtual and physical spaces.

Fake news began to run rampant as users on Facebook took to sharing articles supporting or denouncing various candidates, meanwhile in Macedonia, teens who had absolutely no political interest began to make a serious profit from hundreds of thousands of clicks on their fake news articles. In response to criticism, Facebook declared they would not be censoring articles, and while I see how the word “censor” might raise a few eyebrows, assuming a role of apathy should also raise eyebrows. According to the PEW research center, over 60% of adults in the states use social media as a source of news, accounting for over 40% of the general population. While Max Read with the New York Magazine credits Facebook’s inaction due to the organization being “unsure of its purpose”, I have a slightly less optimistic outlook on the situation. With over a billion users and profit margins to match, I think an organization this size is reluctant to screen articles because it would damage their relationship with a large number of users who bristle at the word “censor”, not to mention it would certainly do a number on their ‘click’ and ‘time’ based monetizing strategies.

I wish I could say it’s as easy as blaming Facebook and Google for these echo chambers, but we as users have a part to play too.

I am lucky enough to have a Facebook newsfeed that is a smatter of blue collar buck antlers, high-fashion refurbished vegan leather, aggressive oil industry advocates and even more aggressive environmentalists- but even amid my unique mixing, there were very few who supported Trump, or spoke against the left-leaning collective.

This led myself, like many others who starkly rejected Trump’s platform, to believe this was the overall reception of the presidential candidate. I assumed that his supporters were simply eager and gathering at rallies, while the sane citizens waited at home to cast their ballots when the time came.

Illusions of a collective are normal, and cultural trends are unavoidable. If I had lived in Vancouver all my life, I would be shocked to visit a city that doesn’t have readily available recycle bins- alas, I was raised in northern Alberta, and am therefore inherently disillusioned to the environmental priorities of other regions.

The danger with these virtual echo chambers comes not from the limited content, but from the illusion that you as a reader are engaging on a broader, more open platform, where contrasting opinions, media, and ideas would be present if they existed.

In the final 2016 episode of Last Week Tonight, John Oliver turned the critical eye of his audience back on itself, as well as his very own show, when he declared “the way we see news now is micro-targeted”. In acknowledging the echo chamber created by content that aligns with viewers beliefs, Oliver recognizes the role that news, across all boards, played in promoting simultaneous apathy and action from Clinton and Trump supporters. Ultimately, the catharsis of immersing one’s self in rational liberal media created an echo chamber which promoted a false sense of security because there was a complete lack of dialogue with the opposition. No one wanted to hear why someone might vote for Trump, we just knew we wouldn’t, and more importantly, we didn’t know anyone that actually would, so it didn’t matter.

Well, at this point, with how everything has unfolded, I don’t think I need to tell you that it does in fact matter. When I first wrote this essay, there were all kinds of statistics being published to explain the outcome because millions of people like me never saw it coming. Now, almost two months into 2017, the media is finally starting to catch on.

Emily Dreyfuss from Wired published an article at the end of January on the social draw of secret Facebook groups, intense echo chambers that place emphasis on community and collective. She closed her article with a bit of advice: “If you’re in lots of private Facebook groups, counterbalance them with public forums like Twitter”.

After finding the Women’s March absent from his trending topics, writer Paul Bradley Carr posted screen shots, criticizing Facebook for not accurately reflecting current trends. At the time, marches were in full swing, gathering more than a million people worldwide. Facebook responded, blaming their algorithm- although it did factor popularity and region, it also factored personal preference of the user. This sparked further criticism and Facebook reformed their trending algorithm to exclude personal preference. These changes are also designed to curb the spread of fake news because they consider the number of publishers posting articles on the same topic.

Last week, after yet another press conference rife with alternative facts, The Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf ran an article which solely considered the dual ways in which Trump is currently being received. Featuring a critique of Trump by Shepard Smith from Fox News, side by side with supportive conservative encouragement, Friedersdorf places emphasis on the fact that left and right wingers still aren’t talking.
“Can conservatives or libertarians or liberals pierce the bubble? Are they even trying?”

As Trump continues to demonize the media and limit conference exposure, accurate, situated news providers are going to become even more crucial, if that’s even possible. As John Oliver put it, it is the responsibility of news providers to broaden their readers “media diet”, and as we approach what appears to be a very strict Trump diet, we need these third party organizations to do what they can to cut through.

Meanwhile, social media platforms need to recognize that they carry an undeniable level of responsibility when it comes to the sharing of information, and as users, we have every right to demand transparency and accountability of these online services.

And finally, now, more than ever, we need to be aware of our virtual presence, of echo chambers, and the repercussions of our actions- or inaction. We are physical bodies, held to one space, and because of this, our relationship with the rest of the world is now often defined by what we see and do on a screen. We as users need to find catharsis in action, in conversation with voices we don’t normally address, in person, or online, and we need to step outside our bubbles into spheres we don’t normally attend.


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