Echo effect: How online personal bubbles shape perspective
Scrolling down your newsfeed, you might be amazed at how many people agree with your latest post. You feel seen, even if just for a second. You feel understood. Your online world is yours alone. With the touch of a button, you don’t have to see anything you don’t want to. Having the option to customize your newsfeed and timeline is important, and it creates a virtual world of comfort.
According to Journalism in the Digital Age, the phenomenon of online echo chambers is “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.” This “echo effect” swaddles us in our interests as we browse the internet looking for answers, entertainment and information.
When you get in the habit of viewing certain content, algorithms pick up on your interests and beliefs. They track your spending habits, the sites you visit, your latest TV show obsession and many more of your online behaviors. Google and Facebook are some of the larger companies that use these kinds of algorithms, but are not alone in this practice. Over time, algorithms begin to curate your newsfeed on Facebook or the ads on Twitter to your specific interests. While doing this, they also filter out any information that you may disagree with or aren't interested in.
This one-sided influx of information doesn’t give us the chance to see both sides of the story. It delivers a warped view of the world that limits our interaction with people who live differently than us. Online echo chambers are a breeding ground for group polarization, meaning if you’re constantly listening to people that validate your views, you’ll probably get more confident and grounded in your opinions. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it can have a negative effect on our outlook of the world. It leaves more room for views with xenophobic undertones to grow in various parts of society. It allows people to be comfortable in their ideologies and label anything that doesn’t align with their standards as abnormal, or even a threat.
The detrimental effect that online echo chambers have seeped into our political views. A prime example of this was the 2016 election. According to Pew Research Center, millennials were more reliant on platforms like Facebook and Google News for political news. Young voters with Hillary Clinton buttons pinned on their backpacks had a hard time understanding why people their age would even think about voting for President Donald J. Trump. Articles supporting Trump didn't circulate their newsfeeds, but were constantly popping up on the personalized feeds of those who had more conservative backgrounds.
As a liberal immigrant with Muslim family members, I couldn’t fathom the idea of people actively supporting Trump’s campaign policies throughout the 2016 election. But what I didn’t realize was that nearly every post on all of the online platforms that I was using supported my opinion, ideologies and political preferences. From the politically-involved people I followed to the posts I retweeted, my virtual reality was being tailored to my idea of what kind of leader America deserved. It was cutting out any piece of information that offered me a glimpse into the rationale of Trump supporters, without my knowledge.
Many of us don’t realize that the smallest things — such as liking a post — dictate the flow of content coming into our online spaces. But it's through being more aware of the little things that you can avoid getting stuck in an online chamber. One way out is to simply broaden your perspective online by engaging with multiple neutral news platforms, like BBC News, among other unbiased sources. Another way you can avoid echo chambers is by taking a peek into the other side’s argument, even if it’s the last thing you want to do.
Lastly, just take into consideration that there is (usually) a person behind the screen. When you're adamant about acknowledging the humanity in people, even if their entire platform is the opposite of yours, you can learn to coexist online. We may get sucked into online echo chambers without realizing it, but just by engaging with a different perspective, you’re on your way out.