Echo chamber politics: Why you shouldn’t unfriend people for political posts

By Edridge D'Souza

Sometimes the greatest advice in life comes from places you least expect.

“As a scientist, Throckmorton knew that if he were ever to break wind in the echo chamber, he would never hear the end of it.” This was said by 10th-place winner of the Bulwer-Lytton “terrible novel opening lines” contest, which provides a seemingly apt metaphor for the current reality of politics on Facebook.

Especially in the heart of election season, most of us have probably heard some variation of the refrain, “If you don’t exactly agree with me on this issue, then unfriend me right now.” At its base, threats like these seem harmless enough. Unfollowing your cousin or classmate for constantly posting annoying memes is a victimless crime, something that most people will eventually do at some point.

However, in doing so, people run the risk of turning their news feeds into echo chambers. And like Throckmorton, if you wait long enough in one, you’ll be surrounded with the sound of your own flatulence.

Facebook’s algorithm relies on showing stories it thinks will appeal to each individual the most. This means that if you “like” many pages devoted to Democratic socialism and make posts about single-payer healthcare, you’ll be seeing more Bernie Sanders in your news feed. Likewise, if you gravitate toward social conservatism and lower taxes, Facebook will show you a lot more of Ted Cruz. This data is shared with advertisers, and pretty soon, your advertisements and even Google search results become a reflection of the things you want to hear.

News feeds now seem to be filled with politics in a time when both sizes are becoming increasingly polarized. That’s exactly why you shouldn’t delete people with opposing views. Sure, you might think they’re beyond help. That there’s no reasoning with them or if they only took a minute and thought about it rationally, they’d soon be supporting your candidate instead. And that’s the exact type of feedback loop that makes you more radical.

Everyone bases their opinions off the presupposition that they’re already correct. That means that when you remove opposing views from your feed, you not only take away any opportunity to be confronted by viewpoints from the other side, but you’re also implicitly telling Facebook, Google and advertisers that you want to become even more entrenched in your side of the aisle.

This type of result, especially in a college environment, is hardly conducive to productive thought. By only taking in viewpoints from one side, you risk exposing yourself to unhealthy levels of confirmation and consensus bias. In other words, when you only see posts from friends and pages you already agree with, you start believing that every reasonable person must believe in the same things as you do. After all, you’re a reasonable person, right? Slowly but surely, your views become progressively more radical.

The purpose of a college education should be to stimulate intellectual development and thought. It follows that the best way to do that is to force exposure to the other side. No matter how disagreeable it may seem, there’s value in it.

As a centrist, I’ve become rather tired of the constant talk of “extreme” candidates like Cruz and Sanders in the news. However, this extra exposure to viewpoints that I’d normally disagree with have led me to modify my stances on certain issues: maybe Republicans aren’t totally anti-science and maybe Democrats aren’t going to raise everyone’s taxes.

Granted, this year’s crop of presidential candidates, is particularly disappointing, but when you make yourself see the other side, everything suddenly seems much more reasonable. President Barack Obama put it best when he said, “I’ve got to tell you, I don’t agree with that either – that when you become students at colleges, you have to be coddled and protected from different points of view. Anybody who comes to speak to you and you disagree with, you should have an argument with them, but you shouldn’t silence them by saying you can’t come because I’m too sensitive to hear what you have to say.”

We’re living in a time when Congress is polarized to the point of gridlock. There’s hardly any reason to perpetuate this polarization in our own personal lives, especially on a website that should really just be for posting personal pictures and sending event invitations. No matter how ridiculous the other side seems, blocking it out isn’t going to do very much to help.

Edridge D’Souza is a contributing columnist can be reached at [email protected]