The great danger of a social echo chamber

Photo courtesy of Cameron Gallahue

The world we live in is more divided than ever before. I am not just making a cutesy blanket statement here to entice you to be interested in my point. Wherever we go, wherever we look, people are judged and grouped together. You are either “normal” or a heathen. You could be “normal,” or you could be a member of the LGBTQ community. You could be smart, or you could be a UGA student.

Do you see how I phrased those statements? It makes it very obvious where I might stand on these issues and adds a sense of degradation to somebody that is not “normal” by their definition.

These statements take on a very different connotation if you ask somebody if they are a Christian or otherwise, or gay or straight, or whether they go to Tech or UGA. Maybe you do have a very strong stance one way or another on one or more of these issues, but it is important to recognize this and act according to the best rule of thumb anybody can give: don’t be a jerk. See, the culture we live in thrives off of the “you are or you aren’t” mindset. You align with one group, or you are different, and nobody really likes being left out.

It was not always this way, though. Take a few minutes and watch one of the first rounds of debates from this campaign season, and then look up some older debates from, say, the late 1970s or 1980s. It is not hard to notice a sharp difference in tone between them. For example, during the Cold War era, debates pretty much boiled down to how terrified we were of getting nuked into oblivion by the U.S.S.R. But something immediately noticeable is that there is minimal bashing of the opposite party, and even less of attacking actual candidates directly.

This campaign season, it is the norm. We have just seen the first presidential debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, and attempts to stir the pot were at an all-time high. Each party is trying to block the other from letting them accomplish anything that might make them look good. Their philosophy is that you cannot get ahead unless you make sure everybody knows that the other party will destroy the country while laughing and kicking puppies.

So why is it that campaigns look like this now and never seem to actually address the issues?

Let’s not focus on the candidates for a minute. We know the platforms of these candidates fairly well at this point, so let’s look instead at the supporters, the constituency, and what we have that’s so radically different from just 30 years ago.

One crazy invention has radicalized the way we communicate, and for better or for worse, it is something that defines our generation — the internet.

The internet really is an incredible creation. It is something that was probably inconceivable before its creation. Even afterwards it was never expected to become such a powerful force in the way our world works.

Nowadays, anyone can pick up a computer or smartphone and get plugged directly into a live feed of the world, seeing news as it breaks and sharing thoughts and opinions just as fast to a huge number of people. Consequently, there is a significant danger involved here that I have never really seen addressed directly, and it is what is referred to as an echo chamber.

In physics, or more specifically, acoustics, an echo chamber is a hallway where you can say something into it and hear your voice repeated back to you shortly afterwards. Socially, an echo chamber is a community you can speak to and hear the same thing back from more people.

If you think about why exactly a social echo chamber is problematic, it comes down to who is hearing your message and how they are responding to it. When we go online, we have a tendency to form our own echo chambers, and I will use Facebook as an example.

You may have seen posts on Facebook from people that have done “friend purges,” which consist of someone going through their friend list and removing people they are not actually friends with, which is innocent enough.

It is alarmingly common, however, for people to run these “purges” on people that do not agree with their opinions on different topics. I personally know people who will remove friends who are of the opposite political party during election years. Sometimes, they will remove friends upon finding out that the person is gay, transgender or maybe just not a Christian.

You most likely know people like this. You might even do the same thing I have been guilty of: removing old friends from my hometown who now only post racist, sexist or xenophobic statuses. However, this is actually a terrible idea, because of the echo chamber effect it creates.

As I mentioned earlier, we are more divided as a country than ever, and our world is just as divided, if not more so. This is at least partly due to our tendency to ignore opinions that contradict our own. Anybody that knows me well knows that admitting I am wrong is one of the hardest things for me to do, so sitting down and listening to somebody actually argue against something I believe and make a valid and convincing argument is tough for me.

This requires two-way communication, and I mean real, honest communication here, not lobbing insults off of a moral high ground. It turns out calling somebody unintelligent for believing something makes them less likely to listen to you and more likely to assert their own opinions back at you with less than pleasant words about the quality of your character.

We have to really get to the crux of the issue and try to have a serious conversation that really challenges the core of beliefs without staking the claim from an “I’m right; you’re wrong” standpoint. It is the only way that we can really try to make our voices heard and make a positive impact.

Now, I am not saying this is easy. It is not easy to challenge somebody you disagree with, and it is even harder to do without resorting to name-calling or ad hominem attacks. It is harder still if they attacked first. But anything worth doing is rarely easy, and this is honestly one of the most important things we can do as human beings.

In the end, we at Tech are college students. One of our most important roles as students is to challenge the status quo, form radical, crazy new ideas that just might work and try to put these ideas out there in the world.

We will be shot down, yelled at, insulted, attacked and proven wrong, but we will try again, and again, and again, learning a bit more about ourselves and about the world every time. That is the whole point; we are supposed to learn to challenge things that do not seem quite right and learn to think critically about everything we can.

We need to try to have these discussions in the digital world too, as this is where information spreads the fastest and to the widest audience.

If we can really stand up for our ideas in the enormous spotlight online, we can really make a difference to a huge number of people. However, it all rides on being able to talk rationally to those who disagree with you.

So please, next time you are tempted to block or remove someone on Facebook who disagrees with you, really think about having a real conversation with them about the issues.

You may just be able to change their minds.