Echo Chambers and Digital Divisiveness


A couple weeks ago, my wife and I went out to dinner with some friends. The subject of sharing news about family on Facebook shifted to sharing other information. One of our friends was shocked when I told her that her news feed was influenced by what she and her friends interacted with – that it was different than mine. Of course this makes sense when you think about a good eCommerce site such as Amazon. The better ones show you more of what they think will interest you and get you to buy. Social networks engage you in much the same way. The difference is that there’s only so many pairs of socks you’ll buy online but you can read and click all the news you want to.

There’s a lot which has been written about echo chambers lately and how they affect what you see. The premise is that you click and share which trains algorithms on what to show you more of. Related Articles under something you’ve engaged with on Facebook should look familiar. There’s only so much room on the screen so something else is getting suppressed. If you’ve ever heard the term “Big Data” analytics, social networks almost invented it. Some of the most powerful tools were invented at Facebook and Twitter. Here’s a story on what can happen when the Liking gets out of control.  The thing is, a recent study by Facebook shows that the website doesn’t filter out information as much as users’ own actions do.

For liberals, this was an 8% filtering based on Facebook and 6% based on their clicks. For conservatives it was 5% from the algorithms and 17% on their own. The science is there. I know that I see articles someone I’ve Friended clicks Like on or adds a comment to every day. In the case of many people, you see a steady stream of activity on clearly biased content. Sometimes they’ll share it. Sometimes it’s a Like. Sometimes it’s an insulting comment to a friend, family member, or complete stranger. The trip down the self-selected content rabbit hole can get pretty nasty.

Down the rabbit hole
Note the Related Articles. You see more of what you choose to see more of.

Not only are people losing sight of civility, they’re not even focused on winning an argument. I can’t recall anyone shifting someone’s point of view by calling them an idiot. There’s even times I’ve seen people bypass what seem to be legitimate causes and stances just to call out a set of people they actively hate.

Think about that: Actively. Hate.

Anyone doing this is completely missing the point that they’re doing exactly what they hate the other biased side for. There’s not a hunt for a debate on a divisive issue. The only outcome is either going to be someone who completely agrees with you or who vehemently opposes you. In the past, I’ve done some experiments with posting moderate content using vanilla or inflammatory titles. You can easily guess which generated more engagement. Everyone agrees that reporting gets more biased but points their finger at the other guy when their sources are called out.

The article has a point, but it's also got a clear slant.
The article has a point, but it’s also got a clear slant.

So here’s what I’m doing. I’m calling people out. Stop engaging in bullshit content like this and the rest that’s above. I know it makes you laugh – either with those you identify with or at those you don’t. This junk doesn’t “win the Internet”. It doesn’t show off intelligence, it doesn’t convert anybody, and it actually does more to turn off anybody not aligned with you. If you’ve got a valid point you want to debate with an open mind then I’m in, that’s progressive. There’s a comments section below plus I’m on Facebook and Twitter. If your purpose is simply to further an agenda and call people assholes well… you can listen to your own echo.

Crazy Face = Echo Chamber
If you clicked on an article with a famous face in a crazy expression… You might just be in an echo chamber.

Edit:
By request, here’s a link which my wife found that is a Liking Nothing to Liking everything. The author Liked nothing and saw how it changed her news feed.

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4 thoughts on “Echo Chambers and Digital Divisiveness

    1. Eric, I know how to change your opinion. You’re an idiot… Now I’ve changed your opinion… of me, you’ve realized I’m an @ssh0le.

      Seriously though, I agree with you on this one. The echo chamber effect is part of the reason I’ve never engaged with Facebook the way I engaged with older social media like Discussion Boards. Stating conflicting views on can be problematic because some people are using FB to advance professional activities, putting them in a position where they must defend their turf rather than engage in discourse.

      As much as we should take responsibility for the echo chamber, FB still has a lot to do with it. People can only click links that FB exposes for them. Perhaps FB will never be a great place for discussing controversial issues.

      Over the past year or so, I’ve found my feed increasingly littered with adds and irrelevant posts. I think I’ll try the ‘no likes’ experiment for a while.

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