GUEST POST: Learning About Current Events -- We Must Break Out of the Social Media Echo Chamber
By: Samuel Sumeracki
Samuel Sumeracki currently works for Brown University in their School of Professional Studies. He works with the Summer@Brown program, a program providing college-level course experiences to middle school and high school students. His Master's degree is in strategic communication from Purdue University. You can learn more about him on his website, samuelsumeracki.com.
Let’s Talk About Social Media
This isn’t going to be a political post, but I need to briefly touch on politics to frame the narrative. I scroll through Facebook a couple times a day. Every time I refresh, I see a handful of news articles posted by friends. Predominantly, I turn to The New York Times and Facebook for news. I figure I can get the meaty world news from The Times and pick up supplemental news through my friends’ posts. The problem, I came to realize, is most people on my friends list share my views.
After the latest US election, I thought more and more about Facebook and the posts that appeared on my News Feed. Facebook and social media sites can be beneficial—quoting a team of researchers, “numerous empirical studies have found that the relationship between social media use and various health related factors appears to be positive in the general population” (1). It can also be a great way to stay connected with distant friends and reduce feelings of loneliness.
That being said, it can also create an echo chamber that prevents critical thinking and increases acceptance of false information, making it difficult for people to learn and understand what is actually going on in the world.
Some researchers found that users accept posts that share their beliefs even if the post contains false information. Additionally, opposing views are ignored. After collecting data from 413 Facebook pages, Alessandro Bessi concluded “In Online social media, users consume different information according to their preferences. Being influenced by confirmation bias and selective exposure, they join virtual polarized communities wherein they reinforce their preexisting beliefs.” (2)
Additionally, seeing a news post on Facebook gives the illusion of being well-informed, even if a person didn’t click on the post to read the full article (3). This is worrisome since a PEW Research Center study found that 63% of Facebook users report using social networking sites as a source for news and many use Facebook as their main source of news.
If we want to learn about current events and stay informed about what is happening in the world around us, then we have to break out of our social media echo chambers. The research shows that we don't consume all of the information equally, and seeing news posts gives us a false sense of knowing.
I don’t hate social media; in fact, I rely on it to keep in touch with friends and family scattered across the country. What I’m talking about here is breaking out of the echo chamber. That’s difficult to do if your only source of news is social media.
This week I started reading news sites and listening to podcasts that typically have different political views than my own. They can be difficult to read and listen to. One of the nice things about relying on Facebook is the echo chamber aspect—I know what I’m getting; I don’t have to challenge any pre-existing beliefs. I just get to keep thinking in a way that makes me feel comfortable.
Full disclosure, I’m a registered democrat and typically tend to vote democrat. With that in mind, my news feed typically has more leftist articles than right. On my morning walk today, I intentionally listened to a couple podcasts that I knew would have a different perspective. As I listened to the first couple topics I kept thinking “Nope. Wrong, that’s not right.”, but then I started to entertain the idea that maybe I was wrong, or maybe that there was an answer somewhere in between.
It can be uncomfortable to feel your mind start to change. It can be uncomfortable to face existing paradigms and question them. But isn’t that better than living in an echo chamber? To quote a former teacher turned slam poet, Taylor Mali, “changing your mind is one of the best ways of finding out whether or not you still have one.”
This post originally appeared on Sam Sumeracki's Blog, here.
(1) Brusilovskiy, E., Townley, G., Snethen, G., & Salzer, M. (2016). Social media use, community participation and psychological well-being among individuals with serious mental illnesses. Computers in Human Behavior, 65, 232-240.
(2) Bessi, A. (2016). Personality traits and echo chambers on facebook. Computers in Human Behavior, 65, 319-324.
(3) Müller, P., Schneiders, P., & Schäfer, S. (2016). Appetizer or main dish? Explaining the use of Facebook news posts as a substitute for other news sources. Computers in Human Behavior, 65, 431-441.