In the 3 months leading up to this last election, 4 out of the 5 most circulated news stories on Facebook were hoax stories.
Think about that for a second.
These stories weren’t simply biased, twisted, or distorted. They were completely made up. They were 100% fake.
And they were passed around as actual news by hundreds of thousands of people.
How did we get here?
With 44% of US adults going to Facebook for news, how did we get to the point where we can’t be bothered to take an extra 15 seconds in order to verify the validity of the information we are not only consuming, but actively distributing?
You, me and pretty much everyone else are actively cultivating echo chambers in our lives.
As someone reading a site like Brazen Church – a site built to crash the echo chamber of American Evangelicals – you might think you’re exempt.
And you’d be wrong.
Today, we are going to look at why we create echo chambers for ourselves, and at the end, I want us all to take a unified, tangible step towards breaking out of those chambers and actively cultivating a diversity of voices in our lives.
You (Yes, You) Are Susceptible to Echo Chambers
What is an echo chamber?
In media an echo chamber is a metaphorical description of a situation in which information, ideas, or beliefs are amplified or reinforced by transmission and repetition inside an “enclosed” system, where different or competing views are censored, disallowed, or otherwise underrepresented.
What does this look like practically in 2016?
Let me give you an example:
You love watching Jon Stewart. You were a big supporter of Bernie Sanders. You broke away from the mainstream church and now you have built a sizable community of people online who share your disdain for organized religion.
You regularly post and comment in progressive Christian Facebook groups. You get lots of likes and positive comments whenever you share something progressive on your Facebook wall. You had a few crazy, right wing relatives and old friends who would leave ignorant comments on your posts, but you’ve either muted them or changed them to “Acquaintance” and started posting under the friends-only viewer setting.
You were shocked that Trump just won and you can’t believe half the country is racist. Only a handful of people you know were even considering voting for Trump and it was just because they were brainwashed Evangelicals.
If that sounds a bit like you, congratulations, you live in an echo chamber.
And that’s not me judging you.
In fact, most of the previous 3 paragraphs could be used to describe me. I have taken a few key steps to try and combat my own echo chamber, which I will share with you shortly, but I am just as guilty as anyone of allowing myself to get sucked into a world that only affirms my existing beliefs.
And while I am absolutely at fault for allowing this to take place, there are also some powerful psychological phenomena behind this tendency. Understanding them will equip me to fight against the creation of echo chambers in my life.
The Psychological Reason We Create Echo Chambers
There are several psychological phenomena that affect all of us:
- Confirmation bias
- Cognitive dissonance
- Belief perseverance
Confirmation bias is the tendency to search for, interpret, favor, and recall information in a way that confirms one’s preexisting beliefs.
It means that when we scan new information, we subconsciously (and sometimes consciously) look for information that affirms our existing beliefs while ignoring information that doesn’t fit with our beliefs.
This works in tandem with cognitive dissonance, the mental stress or discomfort experienced by an individual who holds two or more contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values at the same time; performs an action that is contradictory to their beliefs, ideas, or values; or is confronted by new information that conflicts with existing beliefs, ideas or values.
Not only is our subconscious constantly looking to affirm our existing beliefs and past decisions, but we will actually experience stress when everything isn’t lining up. When new information comes our way that oppose our beliefs, it stresses out our psyches.
This affects YOU, whether you like it or not.
And when that stressful new information comes along, contradicting what we already believe, we can either embrace it and adjust our beliefs, or, like many do these days, we can ignore it and persist in our preexisting beliefs.
Belief perseverance is the tendency to cling to one’s initial belief even after receiving new information that contradicts or dis-confirms the basis of the belief.
It’s what happens when that one guy shows up in the comments and says, “You guys link to Wikipedia? I can’t believe anything you say. Get some credible sources.” … and we show him how our links are actually pointing to works cited entries of credible sources that were used to populate the Wikipedia entry. We show him that the definition we are using is actually taken from The Encyclopedia of Social Psychology. And he responds, “Well, it’s Wikipedia. People can just write anything they want on there.”
While many of us take pride in our ability to embrace new information, we are still very susceptible to discounting any new information attached to ideas we’ve already evaluated.
This is part of what makes politics so divisive.
We’ve already listened to arguments for and against higher taxes, so we now think we fully understand the discussion and begin closing our ears to new information that doesn’t agree with our position.
We’ve already spent hours arguing about energy sources, and we’ve made up our mind.
We’ve already decided which type of immigration policy is “objectively” moral, and any arguments outside of that framework are clearly immoral.
In this way, we “free thinkers” are often just as susceptible to echo chambers as the uninformed simpletons we love to despise.
So how do we protect ourselves from falling into this trap?
The Solution: Cultivate “Echo Busters” In Your Life
The best solution I’ve found is to actively cultivate “Echo Busters” in my life.
These are people who fundamentally disagree with me on something big while still retaining my respect.
These are the people who will call me out when I embrace a faulty argument. They are the people whose annoyingly well-researched Facebook posts are always there to assault my news feed just when I was getting comfortable with my lot in life as the smartest person ever born. They are the people who will have a heated argument with me today and grab a beer with me tomorrow.
And most importantly, they are the people who, underneath the words, are living worthwhile lives I can’t help but respect.
You might read this and think, “Well I definitely don’t know anybody like that who doesn’t agree with me on most things.”
And I’m going to tell you right now, THAT’S 100% YOUR FAULT!
Those people exist. I guarantee it. If you don’t have them in your life, it’s because you aren’t trying hard enough to cultivate a diversity of voices in your life. And it means you are actively living in an echo chamber.
I believe the Evangelical Church at large is actively harming its own members and any who come in contact with its dysfunctional beliefs.
But I have insightful Evangelical friends who have done 100x more to benefit the vulnerable in their communities than I have. And if in my mind, my beliefs somehow allow me to disqualify the voices of people who are actually doing something positive on a weekly basis, I am hopelessly deceived.
I believe the Republican platform in it’s current state is wrong on a hundred different levels.
But I have Republican friends who are very knowledgeable, intelligent, and rational, and if I discount the very legitimate information they bring to the table simply because it makes me uncomfortable, I am hopelessly deceived.
I believe that we have a long way to go in terms of civil rights, but I also don’t buy into certain narratives and attitudes coming out of today’s civil rights movement.
However, I have friends in virtually every minority group who regularly push me out of my white comfort zone to re-examine my limited worldview and consider the existence of extremes I have never personally experienced. If I close my ear to their perspectives because I can’t fully relate or because it makes me uncomfortable, I am hopelessly deceived.
I need Echo Busters in my life.
You need Echo Busters in your life.
And if you already have them, you need to let them know how much you value their voices, insights, and perspectives.
That’s why today, we are going to do something together.
I want you to join me in getting on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram (or whatever social media site you spend your time on) and publicly tagging at least 3 people in your life who disagree with you on big issues while retaining your respect. Include the hashtag #EchoBusters and if you want, tag @BrazenChurch as well, so we can all do this together.
I think it would be really cool if, in spite of all the divisiveness of this last election cycle, and the uncertainty people are feeling towards the future, we all took a moment to appreciate some stand-up people who see the world differently from us and then acknowledge how much we have in common.
(There may be moments in the coming years where we will need to band together across the aisle and across viewpoints to stand up against some very serious affronts to human dignity. I hope that isn’t the case, but I think this is an important opportunity to acknowledge that for most of us, the “fights” we’ve fought over the last few months have been, up till now, purely theoretical. Our “opponents” have not been people actively dismantling freedoms or harming others. They simply disagreed with us on some big, complex issues.)
So who is with me today? Who is willing to take a tangible step towards breaking the echo chambers in their lives?