Beware the echo chamber

Compared to just 20 years ago, people today  have an enormously expanded range of options to inform themselves.   The Internet provides a wealth of information, along with an explosion of options in other media.  Instead of just your local newspaper, magazines, and broadcast network news,  you can now get information from anywhere in the world,  and be exposed to a wide range of perspectives.  The bad side of that is that people have tended to self-segregate.    Don’t like what you hear on news channel 1?  Channel 207 has what you want  to hear!  Web site such-and-such doesn’t agree with your opinion?  Web site so-and-so does!  The key phrases are what you want to hear and agree with you.   There is a natural tendency to want that.

The bad side of this is that the information you receive becomes heavily filtered.  Opposing viewpoints,  hard information, and data that refutes your position all vanish.  It’s still there, if you’re willing to look for it.  The problem is that some won’t.  It’s comfortable to be in that nice warm fuzzy place, where your opinions are agreed with, and your ego gets reinforced.  It’s comfortable alright, but it has created a balkanization.   Each group has self-segregated, and have convinced themselves that they are “right” and they are “the majority.”  Objectively, they’re a small group with set of opinions that the actual majority may or may not agree with.

This is the echo chamber effect, or as it’s sometimes known, “being in the bubble.”   If all you’re hearing are people telling you what you want to hear and agreeing with you, then you can easily come to the conclusion that you’re part of the majority.  The reality is that you’re just a part of a small group.  Nowhere is this more evident than many discussion forums on the Internet.    The forum moderators vary in their ideology, but what happens is very similar.  The moderator’s opinion becomes the normal for the forum, and those who disagree are either banned or soon chased off.  Sometimes with lax moderation, a group of the more extreme posters can create the same effect.

This has some real implications when it comes to political discourse.   Over the past several years, one of the complaints you’ll hear from many people is that politicians spend more time fighting – and doing nothing – than actually getting something done.  Even when they agree on an issue, they’re still not going to do it.  The reason is often those same small interest groups who exist inside their own echo chambers.  Some of them  help create the mainstream media’s portrayal of themselves as “representative” of a political party.   It helps to understand that the MSM loves controversy.  Even when none exists, they’ll try to portray it that way.  The result is that the extremes – which are the most likely to be in conflict – will be the ones getting covered,  which leads to the perpetuation of the problem.  It’s good for the media, it’s bad for the country.

That’s why it’s important to seek out other perspectives and information – to break out of the bubble.  I’ve spent time in several Internet “echo chambers” over the years.  It was comfortable to think that I was a member of a major political force, to be with people who agree with me.   At the same time, I also have a real life, which challenged what I was seeing in those chambers.   I have family members, friends, neighbors, and co-workers  across the political spectrum.   What is believed  in the echo chamber often gets challenged when dealing with that.  I’ve had to check assumptions, and sometimes change my stance because of it.  Just as they have to do.  Reality is often a pinprick to the bubble of assumptions.  Yes, there are times when we have to “agree to disagree.”   But, we can set those aside and work together on the things we do agree on – and it turns out there’s quite a few – as well as negotiate and compromise on others.  That’s real life.

It’s something we need to communicate to our politicians – and others in the echo chamber.  It’s nice to be in one.  It’s comfortable.  But it’s not real.  Real is often messy, confusing, and uncomfortable.  We’ve been handed the ability to be more informed about the world than any generation in history, and many have decided that they’re not going to take advantage of it.   We need to break that habit, and step outside of our echo chambers once in a while.   It’s not easy, but it’s necessary because at some point, reality will come knocking whether we want it to or not.

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