We live in an increasingly divided nation, in terms of politics. Scuffles over political beliefs or which candidate you support have crept into the workplace, into friendships, and even into family gatherings. The political preferences of many news outlets have become more apparent over the past year. Major news outlets have never been more biased in terms of who they favor politically. Powerhouse news networks CNN and MSNBC tend to lean left, while the number one network (according to Adweek), Fox News, leans very much to the right. These biases in the major networks allow us to watch the networks that will interpret the news through our preferable political lens. We easily fall into a trap, in which our same views are repeated back to us, unchallenged. This phenomenon, known as echo chambers, puts us at an information deficit that makes it difficult to communicate intelligently with another about politics.
Echo chambers are not limited to our selective viewing of network news. We typically surround ourselves with people who come from similar walks of life and share a similar world view. Social media takes that phenomenon to a new level. According to Pew Research, 61 percent of millennials use Facebook as their primary source for news. Facebook, Twitter, and other forms of social media are individually customized based on what we like and who we follow. The news that is presented through these platforms is tailor-made for us. We tend to accept/like/read/share posts that conform to our narrative, ignoring posts that challenge our narrative. This can become a habit that continually limits our view and allows us to become all the more ignorant and one-sighted. We see what we want to see, limiting ourselves to one polarized point of view.
We live in a reality that we create for ourselves. This is harmful in a couple of ways. First, we become more likely to accept “click-bait” or fake news if it supports our view. A study done by three social scientists, including Walter Quattrociocchi, observed the response of Facebook users to a deliberately false article post. Roughly 80 percent of all likes, comments, and interactions came from users with views similar to those expressed in the fake news article. Second, it poisons political discourse. No one can hope to have a productive conversation on politics if you allow yourself to be uninformed on the other person’s point of view. Have you ever had a frustrating conversation with someone about current events? You can probably thank your echo chamber!
Take the presidential debates, for example. The third and final debate was widely believed to have been won by Hillary Clinton. CNN heralded a Clinton victory, with headlines like “Trump Missed This Last Chance” and “Clinton the Only Fit Candidate on Stage.” If you dug hard enough, however, you could find articles that declared a Trump win, such as the Washington Post’s “Trump Won the Third Debate”. The perspectives on who won were so different, it almost seemed like news outlets were reporting on two different debates.
A few days after the debate, my English class engaged in what started as a healthy discussion about the performance of the two candidates. My professor was unrestrained in her expression of hatred for Trump and her certainty that he had zero chance at winning the election. Some brave students challenged her and pointed out all of the reasons why they believed Trump had won the debate. As a bystander, it was stunning to me that they were talking about the same event. One narrative presented Trump as a hate-mongering idiot; the other as a much-needed champion of the middle class. Needless to say, the conversation went nowhere. There was a clear frustration between the two parties due to the different understanding of what actually happened. I can guarantee that echo chambers had a part to play in this comically dysfunctional conversation. I’m sure my professor wasn’t watching Fox News on debate night, and I’m positive my fellow conservative students steered clear of CNN, or most other major networks for that matter.
This is the reality of the modern relationship between American citizens and the media. News outlets often choose to express political preferences, actively or passively, and we love it. We often choose to watch whatever we want, hear whatever we want, and believe whatever we want. This will only further the divide present in our country today. We will continue to not be on the same page and we will become frustrated with one another because we are subject to different realities. While most Americans are content in their cozy echo chamber, there are steps we can take for those who wish to become better, more well-informed members of the electorate.
Differentiate your choice in network news. You are guaranteed to encounter some level in bias if your news comes from one of the major networks. While it is natural to watch the network that best aligns with your political views, you shouldn’t limit yourself. For someone who primarily watches Fox News, temporarily flipping the channel to a more liberal network will foster a more well-rounded perception of important current events.
Assess and improve where your news comes from. Are you among the majority of millennials getting their news through posts on Facebook, shared by like-minded friends and family? When you seek out the news online, what sources do you go to? Business Insider provides a useful chart that can help you choose truly fair and balanced news outlets. Focusing on fact-based news, with little to no influence of political preference, provides a more sound, unadulterated knowledge of current events.
For students who spend a lot of time on their laptop, putting a bias check on Google Chrome can help monitor the level of bias for each site you visit. Programs like Media Bias Fact Check display a letter at the top right corner of the screen to indicate the level of bias on the site you are on at any given moment. This serves as a good reminder to filter your news throughout the day and to focus on the best sources.
These solutions to echo chamber entrapment warrant our concerted efforts. Limiting oneself to a singular way of thinking, without regard for differing points of view, is detrimental to the growth of a young political mind. Resisting the inclination to see the world only through our own limited viewpoint will allow us to be better-informed, have more meaningful discussions with our peers, and have more confidence in our knowledge of current events.
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