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Wednesday, May 29, 2024
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Welcome to your echo chamber: How algorithms control your life and how to get out

What if I told you that you reading this article — yes, this one right here — is the result of every interaction you have ever had up to this point. That your conversations with your friends and family, your exploratory social media swipes and your long YouTube binges all converged to the kind of stories you read today.

In this generation’s manifestation of the media within online forums, computer algorithms are the prime dictators of what information you consume daily. These arithmetic computational processes are complicated, basing the content they make available to you on data about your educational background, age and political ideologies — all information you release when consenting to the internet’s Terms of Service. Aside from the ones and zeros, all exploratory browsing algorithms have one goal in common — to keep you consuming the content you like. Revolutionary, right?

In addition to the information we consume, our opinions, interests and ideas are reflected back to us in the form of epistemologically conditioned social media circles. These are established in the form of the Facebook groups we (or, more pertinently, our moms) join. In Instagram and Snapchat, these cliques form in the comment section of popular creators or within the confines of instant messaging groups. Social media users tend to immerse themselves into groups of like-minded people. They like to receive information from those who share similar demographic identifiers and, often, sociopolitical views about the world. 

This categorical organization of people online can happen consciously or not; perhaps through the foundation of close friendships online or simply through the interactions between users on instant messaging systems. Sharing ideas between people of similar minds has proven good for our egos. It gives us a sense of belonging in the complex world of social media. So, what’s wrong with similar people making connections and agreeing on things?

Well, this universal tendency for the ideological curation of individuals’ social media pages has been coined one particularly unsavory term. Echo chambers, according to numerous scholarly articles, are extremely polarizing. And you’re probably in one right now.

Echo chambers have clear implications within not only our Twitter feeds, but the real world as well. In an article published in Aeon Magazine, Assistant Professor C Thi Nguyen of Utah Valley University defined our experiences on social media as reflectant of cults. With guidance from algorithms and the formation of close online relationships, tightly-knit “tribes” make up our network of friends on Instagram, Snapchat and other forms of social media. This tendency toward ideological grouping reflects back to individuals only information that confirms their current worldview. Consequently, our experiences online become constricted to a closed chamber of social media friends and feeds; one that repeats previously conceived thoughts and ideas back to us for our own reconsumption.

Our perceptions of current events are narrowed significantly as a result of the “exaggerated degrees of agreement” we experience from our surrounding echo chamber. This is a phenomenon furthered by computer algorithms. The complicated nature of these programs render these chambers impenetrable by any contradictory intellectual material, and keep us hesitant to consume opposing information. This way in which we learn about the world online is detrimental. It has been accredited to extreme political polarization and, notably, the infamous attack on the Capitol in 2021.

Trust is an integral component of echo chambers.  The social structure of our communities relies on trust: trust in our neighbors, our law enforcement officers, our essential workers and our political leaders. Unfortunately, echo chambers tend to skew these feelings of trust by feeding us confirmatory stories and exaggeratedly negative depictions of the “other side.” This phenomenon facilitates a dangerously polarized view of the world, wherein your own word is always correct. 

So, now that you know what an echo chamber is, what are you going to do about it? Expert analyses of this phenomenon suggest individuals become more aware of the information they are consuming online. For example, note the topics coming up on your Tik Tok “For You” page or your Instagram “Reels” and the relative demographics the videos tend to address. Ask yourself if these are reflectant upon your views of the world, and if they are, how might they be problematic? The only way to truly break out of an echo chamber is through the enthusiastic consumption of content you are not used to seeing online. 

You must learn your biases, whether they regard the political state of the world or whether Larry Stylinson is real (so basically the political state of the world). Reflect on the reasons behind your current beliefs and seek out perspectives that contradict them. Be empathetic of the other side and try to walk in shoes new and unfamiliar to you. 

Relieving yourself from an echo chamber is a difficult process that takes conscious effort, and it all depends on your willingness to make a change in the way you view the world through social media. If you’re motivated enough, you might notice a big change in perspective, likely for the better. If not, I’d like to kindly welcome you to your echo chamber. Enjoy your stay!

Athena Kafkas is a sophomore studying Neurobiology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Do you agree that echo chambers are an issue? Send all comments to opinion@dailycardinal.com.

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