Online Echo Chambers are Deepening America’s Ideological Divide

Apocalyptic. That’s one way to describe the current American political landscape. 

Left versus right; Blue versus red. The ideological divide is so vast that it feels as if the American public is standing on the edge of a cliff poised to leap into a chasm of divisiveness, past the point of no return.

This discord is made worse by the way voters have begun consuming news within their insulated online echo chambers.

The federal government’s complete failure to control the spread of the coronavirus, a nationwide reckoning with race and the lasting impacts of slavery, and vicious wildfires resulting from climate change have deepened the divide and stoked a fervent sense of fear regarding the 2020 general election.

What was already set to be a volatile and grueling election season has morphed into a scene straight out of a dystopian novel.

Making things appear even more warped, candidates can’t run traditional in-person campaigns during the pandemic, relying on Instagram Live and Twitter to connect with voters. It’s a clever strategy since Americans are spending more time on social media, especially Twitter and TikTok, as a result of COVID-19 stay-at-home orders.

Scott Nover, the founder and board president of MediaFile and a platforms reporter at Adweek, explains that “around March, you see a really big spike in [TikTok] downloads.” TikTok also saw a change in the demographics of its users throughout March, April, and May. 

Prior to the pandemic, the majority of TikTok users were Gen Z. In the spring, however, members of the working class—millennials and other older generations—suddenly found themselves stuck at home with more time on their hands to spend online. 

For many, social media is an integral part of our everyday lives. A study conducted by Pew Research this year revealed that 18 percent of Americans get the majority of their political news from social media. Of that 18 percent, approximately 48 percent are Gen Z or millennials. 

Social media companies like Twitter and Facebook use computer algorithms that track users’ content preferences and interests, continuously feeding consumers posts tailored to their individual interests, consequently controlling what news people see on their feeds. 

Consider, for example, a Twitter user who consistently interacts with conservative Tweets and accounts, such as President Trump’s. The algorithm will likely feed this particular user right-wing news and content that aligns with their ideology and confirms their biases. Thus, they only engage with like-minded people. Users across the ideological spectrum exist in virtual echo chambers that amplify their beliefs.

Our social media feeds become our personally curated realities. 

Existing in an echo chamber feels comfortable. There is little incentive to break out of our cozy online bubbles. Except, perhaps, that echo chambers are poisonous to our democracy.

If the U.S. is on the edge of a cliff descending into a constitutional crisis, then echo chambers are the unrelenting winds threatening to push us off.

What can we do about it? Big technology companies can provide accountability and transparency for their algorithms. This, however, is difficult to implement as computer algorithms are profit-driven—their primary goal is to maximize human interaction on these platforms and increase profit for the company. 

Additionally, in a capitalist society, technology companies have no intrinsic motivation to desert profit-driven algorithms in favor of ethical and non-prejudiced ones to disrupt echo chambers. Therefore, government regulation, in some form, is necessary.

In the meantime, consumers can try to beat the algorithms by actively seeking out and interacting with opposing viewpoints. Or, we can ditch social media altogether. 

However, social media’s role in building momentum for political and social justice movements cannot be discounted. Approximately 80 percent of U.S. adults believe social media platforms are very or somewhat effective at raising public awareness about political and social issues. Similarly, 65 percent say social media can get politicians to pay attention to certain issues

So, maybe we should not completely abandon social media. But, we do need to become more conscious consumers of media. 

We can continue to share infographics and information regarding various political and social issues, but we should not rely solely on social media for our news and should work on making our feeds more heterogeneous. Diversifying the content we consume is even more important during an election season, especially one in which campaigning is primarily digital.

Reunifying the nation is not the sole responsibility of any one candidate; it is a responsibility that we all bear. Perhaps the simplest way to do this is by diversifying our social media feeds.

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