The Electronically Enforced Echo Chamber
Social Media and Partisan Politics
- Over the last few years social media on the Internet has become ubiquitous and has permeated into every corner of our daily lives. Our social lives are being digitized; and a part of that social life, of course, is politics. Before, in the real world, the convention was that discussion of areas such as politics or religion is taboo--don't bring up these subjects unless you want blood and tears all over the family dining table. Now, people are free to post all about the the things that are important to them, sharing political/social views is simply a click away. Through ease-of-use and ubiquity, social media has created a climate where it is possible to be exposed to differing viewpoints on a near daily basis.
- But there may be a problem here: because we have the capacity to control what information we see on the web, it is possible that one may decide to insulate themselves away from opposing viewpoints. The Internet is a limitless market of information, but we have the ability to pick which channels we tune into. In this way we are able to set up an echo chamber that only reinforces our already formed opinions. Before we delve into that issue, it is necessary to take a look at just how social media has changed our public discourse.
Remix and the Democratization of the News
- Lessig's Remix is mostly concerned with the "democratization" of artistic culture through the use of social media. In this usage, "democratize" means that the playing field has been leveled, so that anyone has the means to engage in creative pursuits on the professional level; however, he also touches on the role that social media has on democratizing the way news and information is disseminated. In the same way that the amateur musician can remix culture, the amateur reporter can also remix current events. Below are two aspects of social media that have impacted traditional news media.
- The Blogosphere
- It has become increasingly easy for one to create and spread their own views on current events, specifically on the blogosphere. This ease of use has led some to worry about quality control (Lessig 62). The constant stream of commentary on any issue can be overwhelming, making it difficult for one to know whom to trust. This problem of quantity-over-quality has been mitigated by the use of tagging and blog indices such as Technorati (Lessig 60-61). Thus, a layer meaning is added to the amorphous blogosphere, and its users are able to find reliable resources much easier. Indeed, Lessig will tell you that many times, these bloggers can match or even outdo traditional media forms (Lessig 62).
- As most high-school and college students will tell you, Wikipedia, an online encyclopedia that allows anyone to create content on any subject, has quickly become an invaluable source of information on basically everything. One of its main goals is to remain absolutely neutral on all issues via heavily monitored and edited entries. This tool has proved surprisingly useful, especially for covering news stories as they unfold, as Lessig notes in regards to the Virginia Tech massacre (Lessig 161).
Remix Gone Wrong: The Echo Chamber
- Despite our new-found freedom for sharing information, there may be some potential drawbacks. Since we have total control over our media diets, one could assume that some people would want to shut out opposing views. After all, opposing opinions can be quite uncomfortable. Perhaps it taps into that childish act of plugging your ears and shouting "LA LA LA LA LA" when someone says something you disagree with. But, the Internet's ability to filter may be less innocuous than I make it out to be, according to Cass Sunstein:
". . .from the standpoint of democracy, filtering is a mixed blessing. An understanding of the mix will permit us to obtain a better sense of what makes for a well-functioning system of free expression . . . First, people should be exposed to materials that they would not have chosen in advance. Unanticipated encounters, involving topics and points of view that people have not sought out and perhaps find irritating, are central to democracy and even to freedom itself. Second, many or most citizens should have a range of common experiences. Without shared experiences, a heterogeneous society will have a more difficult time addressing social problems and understanding one another."
Sunstein believes that this filtering will lead to a more and more fragmented society: if we are so sheltered from opposing viewpoints that we do not even know what those viewpoints are, then we have no common ground with other people who don't share our inclinations. Basically, the filter defeats the old adage of America as the great "Melting Pot."
- At this point, it's clear that the Internet can be used as a tool to divide. But, a capacity to create echo chambers does not necessarily mean that it will. The question now is, "does the Internet create echo chambers?" Recent evidence suggests otherwise.
The Echo Chamber: Does it exist?
- According to recent studies, the Internet echo chamber may not actually exist:
- The above study examines the way in which people seek out news stories online. It was found that people tend to be interested in articles that reinforce their world view, rather than things that may challenge those views. Although, there are some mixed results. The say that it is unlikely that people will use the Internet to create echo-chambers, but the websites that I have found in my research would run contrary to this claim.
- This is a study on the way information travels on Facebook. They conclude that the echo chamber does not exist. While I agree, to an extent, that social media such as Twitter and Facebook help to mitigate the echo chambers we encounter in real life, I do not think that studies such as these prove that the echo chamber does not exist, they merely prove that the echo chamber doesn't have an effect on Facebook. The reasons are fairly obvious: since Facebook is meant to be a digital mirror of one's actual social life, then of course one is going to be exposed to differing viewpoints.
- As Bora Zivkovic notes in her blog post above, the Internet allows one to post their feelings on taboo issues without as much fear of reprisal as opposed to real life, where disagreement on social and religious issues can lead to many awkward and uncomfortable discussions. I'm sure we've all had moments where, after adding an old friend on Facebook, we become horrified by the material that they post. Or, as Zivkovic so succinctly puts it: "There are people in the world who believe what!?!?"
- On the other hand, there are places on the Internet that provide a different service. Specifically, there are indeed politically motivated websites that seek to create echo chambers of discussion. Rachel Maddow posits that the right-wing political complex has set up a partisan echo chamber, impervious to fact-checking from outside sources:
- Is she correct? In a word, yes. Now, allow me to illustrate why.
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