Let me take you back to October of 2016. The presidential candidates are set, and for you that means that for the past four months you have not been able to get on Facebook without your Uncle Carl basically reaching through his computer screen, grabbing you by the neck, and shoving his political opinion down your throat. For a brief moment, you wish Uncle Carl would just go back to posting pictures of him getting his tan on with the rest of his old country club buddies in Aruba, but you quickly brush that scarring image out of your mind.
Everyone’s got an Uncle Carl: the person or two on social media who seem to treat your Facebook or Twitter feed like a Congressional Hearing at the U.S. Capitol, and make sure you know their opinions on all the happenings in Washington. You can unfollow them can’t you? At the very least you can mute them and they’d never know. The social media platforms that have survived and conquered the world recognize that you love your Uncle Carl, but you don’t want to hear his opinion on how the Westminster Dog Show has become overly politicized ever since they replaced the line judges in ’89 (I have no idea how dog shows work but just go with it).
My point is that Facebook and Twitter have made it so easy to filter out the posts on social media that annoy us, and so… we do. We may not even realize it, however slowly but surely we may begin to skew our own political views. What I’m talking about is the “Political Echo Chamber”.
It’s been happening forever. Uncle Carl chooses to read one paper over another. He watches CNN over Fox News. He gets in a routine. He gets familiar. All of the sudden this is HIS paper. They do it the best, and the other guys don’t know what they’re talking about. These become his opinions, the people creating the content do better when Uncle Carl likes what he reads, and Uncle Carl likes when the writers or hosts share and affirm his opinion. This cycle perpetuates itself, and before you know it Uncle Carl and the writers at the Times are bouncing the same set of beliefs off each other until the end of time.
Social media is no different; in fact, it might be even easier to fall into such an echo chamber. The Pew Research Center has found that about two-thirds of adults get news from social media.
I can follow whoever I want on Twitter. I can tweet out my opinion. If someone finds it and doesn’t agree, they might want to make a counterargument. This fosters an incredible platform for the sharing of opinions and spirited debate, but only if used correctly. If I don’t like what someone says to me, I can block him or her, and make sure I never hear from that person again. All of the sudden, not only am I only following people I agree with, but people who I don’t agree with me don’t even have the opportunity to tell me why my opinion might not be a good one. This is a bit of an extreme example, but these things certainly happen. At the very least, muting people who you find annoying or incompetent narrows your perspective a bit.
So what do we do to prevent this? Henry Tsai at Harvard Business School decided that if social media is perpetuating this problem, there must be a way for it to create a solution, too. Soon after the 2016 presidential election, Tsai created Hi From The Other Side, a website that connects people from opposite ends of the political spectrum, invites them to meet up in person, and fosters civil discussion about politics. One participant noted the value of connecting in person, rather than behind a computer screen:
“I think social media just helps reinforce the hate; it just pushes everybody apart,” O’Brien says. “Because when I see something [online] I’m not talking to a person, I’m just typing a bunch of letters in a message.”
Sometimes social media has a tendency to make things impersonal, and takes the human element out of the discussion. Hi From The Other Side is helping people realize that not everyone with a differing or opposite opinion is annoying, wrong, or crazy.
In a similar attempt, researchers at the MIT Media Lab wanted to create a more tolerant social media platform. FlipFeed is a Google Chrome extension allows you to “step into someone else’s shoes”. It evaluates your political views on social media, and gives you the opportunity to view social media platforms with the viewpoint of someone with a different political ideology and make a big push for empathy across social media.
Right now, Hi From The Other Side appears to have an extensive waiting list, and FlipFeed is not cooperating with my computer, but I plan to make a follow-up blog giving a personal account of my experience with each.
An NPR article points out that these are great options for making social media a solution to the “online bubble”, but take active participation and user initiative, and most people are content with roaming passively around the internet. Then again, blocking and muting people takes initiative as well. So I guess my plan is to be a little more tolerant and open minded on social media and take the time to read posts that I don’t necessarily agree with. For now, let’s all try to cut Uncle Carl some slack.