Take a look at the following two images, deliberately chosen to represent different parts of the political spectrum:
Posts like this are rampant on Facebook, and other social media communities. America used to have the common experience of watching major news networks deliver information. Now, our technological landscape offers an escape from the discomfort of dealing with people who have different opinions. Facebook’s sophisticated News Feed algorithms tune the content you see to what you react most favorably to, which for most people is things they agree with. Reddit has one hundred “we all think the same thing” subreddits to every one “let’s have a dialogue” subreddits. Gab is a social network dedicated entirely to a specific spot on the political spectrum. (I linked to a New York Times article about Gab instead of the site itself because you can’t see much without logging in.)
There is some value in echo chambers. I like the idea of comedy and satire being nearly omnipresent, and some ideas are best shown to be absurd through humor. And people can joke about a pointed political meme without thinking that meme represents an honest discussion.
In particular, I don’t find r/atheism to be interesting, because the last time I checked, it was an echo chamber of people expressing the same set of views. However, I can understand the perspective of someone who is trapped in an extremely religious environment, and feels lonely because they don’t know anyone else in their small Bible-belt town who is not religious. These people may just need to vent, and r/atheism gives them a space to do that. Other belief systems across the political spectrum could be similarly oppressive and create the desire for a safe space to vent.
But, based on my anecdotal observations, this is not the case for the majority of people participating in echo chambers. It’s predominately about reinforcing the beliefs of one’s community, not escaping an oppressive orthodoxy. One person posts a snarky meme about their political opponents, and a bunch of their friends like it. That feels good, so the next day, someone else posts a similar meme, and a bunch of people like that too. This process continues until group identity is thoroughly enmeshed with a set of political beliefs. Politics becomes a team sport, where consciously or subconsciously, people are more concerned about matching what their friends believe and distinguishing themselves from the “Other” than the details of a given policy. If you interact with politics primarily through Facebook, this is almost inevitable. Policy details do not fit into a Facebook post, but the platform is optimized to let you know what your friends think about things.
And, although many of these things can be quite funny, and people have a right to joke with their friends, serious political commentary is often intermingled with facetious memes. Or people will say things indicating that they think the memes accurately portray the issue. These memes are only a problem because they are mistaken for critical thought.
I’m concerned about this because I see a fraying of the fundamental presumption that despite differing opinions, we are all Americans who are in this together. I know people in California, New York, and Washington State, as well as Oklahoma, Wyoming, and Tennessee. I see these groups diverging and being increasingly unwilling to make an effort to understand the perspective or try to find common ground with the opposing group. And why would you, if the Others are bad people who are wrong about everything all the time?
In the debates, Trump said that we can’t have a country if we don’t have secure borders. That may be true, but I see the more pressing and fundamental issue that we can’t have a country if we don’t have any sort of shared reality or willingness to collaborate in good faith. Without those things, we can’t work together to reform immigration, simplify the tax code, control the deficit, design smart social safety nets, reform criminal justice and fight police violence, or face foreign threats in a coherent way, among other major challenges. If the only time we can make progress is when the pendulum swings far enough to grant a single party complete control of the government, then America will inevitably fall from relevance and its people will suffer. And if we are, on a personal level, writing off the people and places who disagree with us, we’re undermining a core American strength: diversity of thought, regions, and culture. America as a whole offers more than the Acela Corridor or Rust Belt do on their own.
I am not the only one who is concerned about this. Obama, in his farewell address, said (emphasis mine):
So regardless of the station we occupy; we all have to try harder; we all have to start with the premise that each of our fellow citizens loves this country just as much as we do; that they value hard work and family just like we do; that their children are just as curious and hopeful and worthy of love as our own.
And that’s not easy to do. For too many of us it’s become safer to retreat into our own bubbles, whether in our neighborhoods, or on college campuses, or places of worship, or especially our social media feeds, surrounded by people who look like us and share the same political outlook and never challenge our assumptions. In the rise of naked partisanship and increasing economic and regional stratification, the splintering of our media into a channel for every taste, all this makes this great sorting seem natural, even inevitable.
And increasingly we become so secure in our bubbles that we start accepting only information, whether it’s true or not, that fits our opinions, instead of basing our opinions on the evidence that is out there.
And this trend represents a third threat to our democracy. Look, politics is a battle of ideas. That’s how our democracy was designed. In the course of a healthy debate, we prioritize different goals, and the different means of reaching them. But without some common baseline of facts, without a willingness to admit new information and concede that your opponent might be making a fair point, and that science and reason matter, then we’re going to keep talking past each other.
I agree with Obama that this trend is a threat to democracy. It’s why I’m so concerned about this, and willing to risk alienating people to point out what I consider to be harmful behavior.
Liberals will be quick to claim that science and reason is more on their side. It is certainly the case that some elements of the conservative movement, like evangelicals, explicitly deny science as a basis for interacting with the world. But liberals exhibit their fair share of irrationality, too. Take the following meme:
Terrorism and the reasons people turn to it over the decades is an incredibly complicated topic. Anyone who claims to be able to boil it down to a “root cause” that can be expressed in thirty words cannot also claim to be using reason. I am not going to wade into a debate about the cause of terrorism in this post, but hopefully we can agree that this is a gross simplification.
The next two sections of this post are going to focus on how liberals undermine their goals by participating in echo chambers. This is not to suggest that conservative echo chambers are not just as bad; I am just personally more familiar with liberals. Also, given the current political situation, the liberal agenda is at far more risk than the conservative one, so I think it’s more important for liberals to hear my message.
Echo Chambers Help Trump
In April 2016, Emmett Rensin accurately portrayed a key dynamic in the election with The smug style in American liberalism:
It is [the predominant] attitude [of liberals] that has driven the dispossessed into the arms of a candidate who shares their fury. It is this attitude that may deliver him the White House.
The wages of smug is Trump.
If you are a middle-America white person in a swing state, and you see the following posts on social media, how will you feel?
If I were a white man who was inclined to be defensive, I would be able to easily dismiss these points because I felt they were attacking me, thus saving me the trouble of engaging with what these people are actually saying.
If Trump runs on a platform of being against political correctness, and reinforces that platform with each appalling thing that he says, is it any surprise that white men voted for Trump over Clinton 62% to 31% and white women voted for Trump over Clinton 52% to 43%?
I’m not going to debate “white fragility” here, but granting that it is a real effect, one doesn’t need to be fragile to feel attacked by the tweet I posted above. Addressing someone as “white dude” is completely irrelevant to the broader point (which is reasonable) and is clearly used as a pejorative. It’s one thing to make a well-reasoned argument about how white people are behaving, have white people get upset about that for no reason, and then call them on it. It’s another to take a shot at white people that adds nothing to the argument.
Echo Chambers Promote In-Fighting
I see exchanges online that go like the following:
A: I’m sad about the inauguration.
B: You’d have to be more sad if you were a less privileged person, and you’re insensitive for not saying that in your original post.
A: <meme expressing a political viewpoint in a facetious way>
B: <serious political commentary as if the meme is accurate>
C: I agree with your goals, but I think this meme is a counter-productive way to win hearts and minds.
A, B, and other friends: <rudeness towards C>
Most charitably, what do the bold lines above accomplish?
- Bolster the poster’s social standing by demonstrating their righteousness
- Reinforce the group’s integrity by pushing out the Other
- Strengthen the group’s unity by giving on-lookers a chance signal agreement by “liking” the poster’s comments
What other effects do they have?
- Push the dissenter (and third party observers who are sympathetic to the dissenter) towards the opposing camp
- By strengthening the group by excluding an Other, the group becomes more suspicious of the Other and less likely to see the Other as someone operating in good faith
- Spends energy trying to change the mind of people who already agree to be slightly different
In short, although the echo chamber is good for one’s friend group, it undermines the long-term ability to compromise with people who think differently. And, even from a perspective that only values advancing one’s own agenda, it wastes energy punishing people who adhere to a slightly different version of The Narrative, instead of engaging with people who have a completely different worldview. I see a lot of bickering between people who all voted for Hillary, when their goals would be better served by engaging with people who voted for Trump and plan to do so again in 2020. If one cares about progressive goals, then this is a time to be finding shared values to coalesce around, not nit-picking other people who have slightly different values. When participants of the Women’s March on Washington who basically agree on most issues in-fight and then people cancel their trip to Washington because they’re “stung by the tone”, the movement becomes less effective.
At the risk of putting too fine a point on it, people need to decide what’s more important: being right on Facebook, or keeping Trump out of the White House in 2020.
I don’t want to lecture people about how to speak. We live in a free society and you can say whatever you want. But America is vulnerable right now, and if you perpetuate echo chambers, I urge you to be thoughtful about the consequences of your words and actions.
I’ll close with another Obama quote from his Farewell Address:
If you’re tired of talking to strangers on the Internet, try talking to one of them in real life.