Shut Up, Uncle Carl!

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. giphy19All 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.

8 comments

  1. Molly Pighini · ·

    This is a great post, looking at social media from a different angle. I agree with a lot of your sources that say social media can be a forum for intolerance or hate. Without having to come face to face with your counterpart, it can be easy for people to make harsh or mean-spirited comments. As we’ve seen with online bullying, it’s much easier to be brave when you may never have to see the person you are critiquing. I think your comments regarding the echo chamber effect are spot on as well. As users, we should have some control over the content that we see. As a result, it is necessary for social media outlets to provide mechanisms for curated content such as blocking or muting. It does, however, make us vulnerable to skewed thinking and bias because human beings naturally avoid things that make them uncomfortable. In the outside world, we don’t have as much control over to whom or what we come into contact. Subsequently, we are exposed to diversity and are forced to consider it and react. If we were only surrounded by people who thought the same way as us, I believe we would become very simplistic creatures. Surely not everyone will choose to participate in solutions such as Hi From The Other Side or FlipFeed, but they are a great first step towards addressing this problem.

  2. I think it’s great that there are applications for those who want to see what it looks like “from the other side.” However, I think it would be naive to assume (not saying that you are) that such apps would eliminate the problem. As you mentioned in your first couple of paragraphs, we hide “Uncle Carl’s” posts because we don’t want to see them. These apps require someone to actively go out of their way to see another person’s opinion. i don’t think it is just the loud and highly opinionated Uncle Carls who get into a routine. Even the quiet, more moderate people, can get into a routine of hiding/ignoring all of the controversial posts. If the only people who use these apps are the ones with an inner desire of learning, they’re probably not reaching the people who really need to be reached – those on the extreme ends of the spectrum.

  3. This is a great post with very true observations. I think many of us do not realise that following people with the same opinions/interests skews our views. Most of the time we even surround us in person with people we get along and do not have many disagreements. I am glad you brought this topic up because I hope it will make me more conscious about it. Hopefully now in case of skipping posts of people I usually don’t agree with I will read them and try to understand their point of view. I also agree it is often easier for people to find a common ground in person. It is easier to be mean and angry behind the computer but many of us would not be able to say the same things in person out of fear or other reasons. Additionally, I think personal connection helps to see the similarities you and the opponent have. So I think it is good that Hi From The Other Side forces people to meet in person. These kind of discussions are not easy so I think before people know how to carry them online it’s good to practice in person.

  4. Great post. Looking forward to reading your follow-up blog on your experience with the site and extension. I am interested to see how the pairing of individuals work and the reviews on how encounters turn out. I think one of the things I am most curious about is how Hi From the Other Side admits people into the pool of people that will be paired. Do they just accept anyone? I think at times, the issue that causes individuals to to block others is that some people are too stubborn and genuinely not open to real conversations. If you are someone that has waited for some time to get paired with someone to have a real conversation with, and then you encounter someone who is really only there to train to change your mindset, that would be incredibly frustrating. I imagine the whole point is for both parties to be open and willing to discuss but how can the website filter for that? I hope your experience sheds some insight on the process!

    1. I hope you’re right! My hope would be that if you are investing the time into this experience, that you would be open to hearing what the other person has to say, but with strong willed people that’s just not the case sometimes. Fingers crossed I meet with someone who’s willing to both speak and listen!

  5. The “Fake News” phenomenon definitely adds to the resentment you feel when you are seeing the posts of that “Uncle Carl” who just can’t help but say what he feels. Now, it’s not only that you might disagree with the source or it’s against your own beliefs, but the very validity and accuracy of the content could be in question. And of course, if you think this person is sharing news that is purposefully misleading, that’s only going to make the divide that much more dramatic and you less likely to take their opinion seriously. I am very curious about the service that you are going to test out. Social media definitely makes it easier to share “fake news”, something we have talked about in class and in the readings. I would imagine that when it “puts you in another’s shoes”, that it would rely on well-sourced articles and accurate info, which of course is invaluable for understanding where someone with other views is coming from. But is anyone immune from reading things that can pander to their beliefs, even if they are technically accurate but just heavily biased? I am definitely curious how it plays out.

    1. I think this also brings to light the ethics of reporting. Is it the reporters job to make sure the are reporting the truth? In a way yes, but at the end of the day their job is to get clicks and sell copies. I think part of this “fake news” problem is that the burden of finding the truth (in my opinion) is on the reader, and in a culture where people are content to read news relatively passively, the opportunity for fake news to spread becomes much easier.

  6. Discussing politics another noteworthy activities on social media. With freedom of speech, to be expressive about political opinion is unrestricted on social media platforms, but at the same time it is somewhat sensitive because one can be seen extreme depending on posts he/she shares. I believe constructive criticism enriches different political perspectives. The problem is those abusing the anonymity on social media. Just like fake news out there, there are fake account users who simply blast bunch of nonsenses or criticism without any proper logics. Therefore, I believe, although social media is virtual platform for discussions, people should take responsibilities in their words and acts to make political discussions (or any topics) healthy on social media.

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