How Social Media Is Becoming A Bigger Echo Chamber For Reinforcing Thoughts And Beliefs
You can love it or hate it, but you simply can’t ignore it: social media is here to stay.
Over the past few years, social platforms like Facebook and Twitter have transformed the way in which people access news. According to a Pew study, 5 times as many Americans get their news from social media sites compared to print. Social media adoption rates are growing exponentially: over 4 billion people use social media – a whopping 53% of the total world population.
However, unlike conventional news platforms, social media platforms weren’t built with news in mind. They were meant to bring people together. Social media algorithms do this by understanding what people are interested in, what their views are, and then presenting them with relevant content.
When we’re talking about hobbies, personal interests, and even professional networking, there’s nothing wrong with this approach: you log into Facebook or Reddit, or Twitter and quickly find your community, your people, your interests, and your clientele.
When social media does what it’s supposed to do, people see what they want to see, which are the things that matter. But here’s the problem with that: news is meant to be objective, and mainstream news platforms strive towards objectivity (to greater or lesser degrees of success). In the pre-social media world, all news was more or less equally visible: having to deal with multiple perspectives forced people to confront their ideas and critically examine them. So, what if yesterday’s story was a conspiracy theory? And what if there’s value in what the other person’s trying to say?
When it comes to social media platforms, however, not all news is equally visible. The same algorithms that determine whether your social feed displays dog or cat videos (or both) also determine the news websites and publications that show up. This creates a perfect echo chamber: magnifying your pre-existing views and beliefs by presenting you with more of the same content and connecting you with people who have similar opinions.
At this point, it doesn’t make much sense to discuss whether this is a good or bad thing. It’s already happened. It is, fundamentally, how the social media environment operates today.
However, there are important questions we need to ask about how these social media echo chambers work and the ways in which they shape thoughts, beliefs, and user actions. Let’s take a closer look.
How Did Your Social Feed Turn Into An Echo Chamber?
Let’s start here, with two key points to discuss: the algorithms themselves and human psychology.
Most modern social media algorithms chase two important data points – reach and engagement. Reach is the result of how popular a platform is. Thanks to FOMO, or “fear of missing out”, popularity breeds popularity, and successful social platforms get millions of new signups every day.
But now comes the tricky part: engagement.
Social media algorithms work to make sure you spend as much time as possible on these platforms. This makes content curation key: successful platforms show users content they relate to and engage with, in turn boosting engagement rates. Most platforms have a system where, over time, the newsfeed utilizes analytics to understand your preferences, then adjusts itself to show you content that would most likely spark your interest. It isn’t hard to imagine how this could have an impact on the kind of news you see on your feeds.
But what about human psychology? Confirmation bias plays an equally important role in creating echo chambers. We always tend to find, interpret and favor information that validates our pre-existing beliefs and notions. People are opinionated by nature, and we tend to find communities and social structures that agree with our beliefs and opinions, often avoiding those with conflicting beliefs. This is especially true when it comes to politics. On social media platforms, confirmation bias, together with algorithmic changes to your newsfeed, will often put you in one of two political groups. Once you’re there, you’ll start seeing increasingly polarised content, opinions, and voices.
From here, opposing viewpoints begin to slowly fade away – both from your newsfeed and from your mind. And in today’s social landscape, the more extreme the content, the less likely it’s been fact-checked, which opens the door to fake news and rumor-mongering. According to a study published in Nature, Facebook directs people more frequently to untrustworthy, potentially fake content, than it does to “real”, factual news. Worse yet, untrustworthy content appears to be significantly more concerning: people spend more time reading and engaging with it in comparison to “real” news.
In a world where critical thinking is a scarce commodity, social media algorithms and our own confirmation bias can nudge us, unwittingly, towards increasingly extreme positions.
When Social Media Becomes News
News – and the people driving news cycles – are not blind to the impact of social media echo chambers. What this means is that over the past few years, social media and its impact on the news have turned into key topics of news in themselves. Even as people increasingly consume their news through social platforms, social media echo chambers are becoming the news for many people.
The lack of social media regulation and control is a topic that increasingly makes it into the news cycle. When Twitter and Facebook decided to suspend former president Donald Trump’s social accounts, the debate online wasn’t just about right or wrong: people were looking to understand exactly how social platforms became this important, without us really noticing.
Conspiracy Theories, Misinformation, And Trolls
Any discussion about social media these days would be incomplete without touching on the dark side of things. Trolls, conspiracy theories, and misinformation campaigns (some led by foreign governments) are part and parcel of the discourse.
In 2018, CNN reported that Donald Trump tweeted the word “fake” over 400 times in just 2 years. Both sides of the political spectrum rely on social media echo chambers to reiterate their messaging, using “fake news” allegations to discredit other opinions while promoting their own conspiracy theories and fringe views.
Echo chambers create blind belief. The constantly reinforced messaging and a lack of exposure to opposing views are a dangerous combination. This makes them fertile ground for conspiracy theories, too.
From QAnon to the Flat Earth theory to alien overlords from Zeta Reticuli, social media platforms serve a steady stream of content to conspiracy theorists, reinforcing beliefs and making it more difficult to build a fact-based political discourse.
Echo chambers breed intolerance to opposing viewpoints, making everything personal for those involved. The mere fact that people hold different opinions has become offensive for some, making it incredibly difficult to find common ground and to bridge the gap.
Closed-off communities and minds, fed by echo chambers, have created a post-truth world. Though the terms “truth” and “facts” are subjective here, objective facts form the basis of scientific thought. In a world where that no longer holds true, evidence-based science itself slowly becomes irrelevant.
Influencers And Echo Chambers
Over the past few years, influencers have played an increasingly important role in social media and this extends to echo chambers.
We’re seeing two kinds of influencers emerge. One type, from extreme political commentators and activists to certain politicians themselves, are part of the problem. They leverage self-reinforcing social media echo chambers to increase engagement and grow their audiences, often at the expense of objective facts. These influencers can cause real-world damage by promoting certain opinions. In the current COVID-19 situation, anti-vaccination influencers have played a major role in creating vaccine distrust, potentially delaying immunity timeframes and causing thousands of preventable deaths.
On the other hand, we see influencers leveraging their positions to promote positive messaging. Over the past couple of months, healthcare influencers have played a big role in shaping public opinion about social distancing, masks, and vaccination.
Social media echo chambers are a reality in today’s world. As part of the industry, it’s important for us to accept the existence of echo chambers and understand how they shape opinions and behavior. As individuals, we need to learn to live with opposing points of view and to promote understanding and communication to build a stronger community.
Social media has immense potential for transformative change. By recognizing and addressing problems like the echo chamber effect, we can work towards building a world that’s less polarized, without harmful echo chambers.
It’s important to note, however, that users aren’t the only stakeholders here. The onus is increasing on social media platform owners and lawmakers to monitor and regulate these spaces, to create an environment where objective truth has the space to flourish. We need to work together to harness social media for a better purpose, its original purpose:
Bringing people together.