The dangers of an online echo chamber

Your news feed is customized to you

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(Flickr Creative Commons: Nelson Gedalof)

By Chloe Lindahl, Collegian Columnist

You’re right, of course you are, you’ve got the article to prove it. You saw it on Facebook and made sure to share it so everyone else knows, too. Search Google if you want to find it again; it most likely will be the first result. In fact, the entire first page of results will probably correlate with your beliefs. Why wouldn’t it? You’re right, of course. But this sort of exposure is dangerous. According to the website Journalism in the Digital Age, it’s called the echo chamber effect, an “increasingly common situation where readers are only shown content that reinforces their current political or social views, without ever challenging them to think differently.”

It’s caused by a learning algorithm that picks up on your interests and beliefs and tailors your feed to you. Large companies such as Google and Facebook are the biggest offenders of employing this learning algorithm, but not the only ones by far. Companies such as Yahoo News and the Huffington Post are starting to customize consumers’ news, a disturbing fact considering they’re two large online news organizations reaching wide audiences. But what’s the point of reaching thousands of viewers if they’re only going to see what they want? That’s another problem with the learning algorithm: not only does it customize our individual news, it also learns to filter out news that disagrees with our viewpoint. Try it out; challenge two friends to Google a current issue. In most cases, their search results will garner two largely different perspectives.

With the United States being as politically divided as it is, our inability to educate ourselves on the whole picture hinders our chances of compromise and bipartisanship. According to Dana R. Fisher, Professor of Sociology at the University of Maryland and Director of the Program for Society and the Environment, “individuals who have the same perspective and get information from the same sources are often under the impression that theirs is the dominant perspective.” This can affect voters’ opinion, future policy and current prevalent issues.

Climate politics is often a prime example of the effects the echo chamber can have on our politics. Fisher says that “finding evidence of echo chambers in American climate politics proves that policy actors are essentially cherry-picking the information they receive related to climate science.” A common problem is that multiple outlets can report from the same source, making one perspective seem like it is a widespread belief when in actuality people are receiving one limited perspective on a complicated issue.

It’s not only policy that is affected by the echo chamber effect. American politics, particularly elections, are one of the most drastically affected aspects of the echo chamber. Pew Research revealed that “61 percent of millennials use Facebook as their primary source for news about politics and government,” but our Facebook pages are personally tailored to our past likes and shares, making the political content we absorb a reflection of what we already believe. Trending articles such as “Why I’m voting for Donald Trump” got millions of shares, but for those whose Facebook algorithm deemed them a liberal, they never witnessed anything remotely similar cross their feed. The same goes for those who Facebook deems right-wing conservatives: Democratic propaganda rarely, if ever, reaches their feed.

The problem with this one-sided influx of information is we don’t get to see both sides of the story. The constant affirmation of our beliefs divides us even further from one another and creates complicated problems with our political system. To make matters even more complex, there’s no easy fix for the echo chamber. We have to make the conscious decision to look outside of our own beliefs, travel to the news sites that never pop up on our feed, look up the counterargument for a belief we’re passionate about and understand the ramifications of trusting a single perspective.

Chloe Lindahl is a Collegian columnist and can be reached at [email protected]