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What’s the key to breaking out of the social media echo chamber? Empathy.
Empathy is about standing in someone else’s shoes, feeling with his or her heart, seeing with his or her eyes. Not only is empathy hard to outsource and automate, but it makes the world a better place. — Dan Pink
We use social media to reinforce our own beliefs. It can be tough to admit, but everybody does it. We follow people who think similarly, and mute those who don’t. We re-post news from sources that mesh with our political leanings. There are all sorts of ways we find to amplify what we want to hear and block out what we don’t.
You can call this the “filter bubble” or “the echo chamber.” I call it a bad idea. Using social media to buttress your pre-conceptions — no matter what they are — is antithetical to the free, open, and educational nature of worldwide communication. It’s not what the internet is for, and it’s damaging to our society.
It’s time to break out of the social media echo chamber. It’s time to become more educated and a better global citizen.
How We Create Echo Chambers
In real life, we spend time with people who have similar beliefs. It’s a natural and largely subconscious process. If a new acquaintance doesn’t hold the same values as you do, you’re probably less likely to hang out with them again. That’s just how social circles work. And for the most part, that’s okay.
Online, however, things are different. You can curate a social network of hundreds or thousands of people who think the same way you do. They could share your political beliefs, or be of the same ancestral background as you, or be from a similar social group. This largely reflects what we do in real life, and might not seem that bad.
But the amount of information we share through digital media is exponentially larger than the amount we share in our real-life social groups. As is the number of people we interact with. That leads to a number of effects, including the subconscious feeling that “everybody” is thinking the same way or talking about the same thing.
Of course, humans are susceptible to this type of thinking, so it can happen with in-person groups as well. But it’s easier to keep perspective when your 20 closest friends are agreeing on something, as opposed to when the hundreds or thousands of people you follow on Facebook and Twitter are the saying the same thing.
The Importance of Empathy
One of the things we risk losing in an echo chamber is empathy. It’s too easy to block out other people’s thoughts and opinions, and this makes it much harder to understand why they feel the way they do about specific issues. Empathy and understanding are cornerstones of civilized discussion. You’re not going to convince someone to consider a new viewpoint if you don’t know anything about theirs.
The internet is supposed to be the ultimate tool of communication and learning. But that requires effort on everyone’s part. If you can get into these five habits, you’ll break out of the echo chamber, become better informed, and develop empathy. And that’s good for everyone.
Follow Feeds You Disagree With
This is hard. And sometimes it’s going to be infuriating. But it’s crucial. Follow people, organizations, and news outlets that hold different views than you do. If you’re generally to the left on the political spectrum, follow Joe Scarborough. If you’re more conservative, follow NPR or BBC.
Do the same with friends. If you have a family member that you avoid on Facebook because their religious views clash with yours, make a point to include them in your news feed. Have a friend from high school that’s now in a different income bracket and annoys you with their posts? Follow them on Twitter anyway.
If nothing else, this will help you get a sense of what they’re talking about, which is a window on what’s important to them. It’s impossible to understand someone’s behavior and empathize with their thoughts and beliefs if you don’t know what they value or what they’re interested in.
Just remember the point of doing this: it’s not outrage porn. It’s to gain insight into someone’s perspective. Try to really understand why people feel the way they do, and get a look into the issues that drive their beliefs and behaviors — especially the ones that confuse or irritate you.
Lay Off the Mute Button
It’s really tempting to mute or unfollow people with different beliefs. I’ve done it myself. And sometimes it’s the best way to go. But if someone’s posts make you angry, instead of muting them, ask yourself why you respond that way. There’s a good chance that there’s just a deep misunderstanding or difference in beliefs. Try to understand their point of view instead of just blocking them.
Don’t get me wrong. Sometimes there’s just nothing to do but mute someone. But before you do that, try to take in their perspective for a moment. Try to understand why they feel the way they do. And why it makes you so angry. Remember that this can be an opportunity for learning and the development of empathy, instead of a quick jam on the mute button.
Engage People in Conversation
This is a really tough one. Especially if you already find it difficult to read someone’s posts. To really understand someone, though, you need to talk to them. And that doesn’t mean flying off the handle and telling them that their views are ignorant, stupid, or immature. It means finding out why they think the way they do. And, if you feel the need, laying out a clear, well-reasoned, and, most importantly, civil outline of your own views.
It’s hard to do this while maintaining your composure. It’s a lot easier to tell someone that they’re wrong and never talk to them again. But that doesn’t do anyone any good. Of course, the people you engage with may not feel the same way about civil conversation. They might hit back at you. But if you can maintain your composure, you can keep yourself from becoming infuriated as well as encourage the other party to be calm.
If you feel very strongly about certain things, this is going to be especially difficult. If you’re a die hard supporter of affirmative action, and someone says that it’s unfair, wrong, and illegal, then asking them why they think that way is going to require a huge amount of self-restraint. If you’re an atheist and someone says that their country is going into moral decline because of the loss of religious values, you’re going to need to swallow your pride to engage them in conversation.
Just remember that the more educated, understanding, and empathetic people are, the better off humanity is. It’s not easy. But it’s really important.
Learn to Question
Escaping the echo chamber doesn’t just mean including a larger variety of things in your information diet. It also means being more critical of the things that are already there. How quickly do you accept the things that your favorite media sources tell you? Do you fact check them, read between the lines, or just assume that they’re true?
We’re all guilty of this to some degree. Some of my favorite sources for news and editorial content are NPR, GQ, and Wired. When I see something on one of their social feeds, I tend to assume it’s true. I have to remind myself to look for places where opinions are shared as facts. It’s easy to forget that even the sources you trust require critical analysis.
This isn’t to say that you need to be cynical and assume that everyone is writing from an extremely biased perspective. There are a lot of people out there doing their best to stay politically, culturally, and socially neutral. But it’s really hard to do that. So be on the lookout for where a writer may have slipped up.
Manage Your Anger
Keeping your emotions in check is absolutely essential to all of the strategies above. If you let your anger get the best of you, you’ll blow up at someone instead of having a conversation. You’ll block someone instead of reading the articles they post. You’ll assume that everything you read that says bad stuff about “the other side” is true.
And none of that does you any good. It feels good to get angry. It also feels good to feel superior to someone. But letting your emotions get the best of you is a great way to scuttle an opportunity for an enlightening conversation. I know it’s super hard to stay calm in these situations. Especially if you’ve been dealing with a lot of stress or you’re feeling overwhelmed with the current state of affairs where you live. And unleashing your anger on someone who you can blame for the way things are feels good.
But resist. Trust me. It’s better for everyone.
Are You Breaking Out of the Echo Chamber?
The social media echo chamber can be really hard to break out of. It’s difficult, and it will make you uncomfortable. Sometimes it’ll feel like it’s making your social media experience a lot worse. But after a while, once you establish some important social media habits, you’ll start to see that making an effort to develop empathy through social media is a noble quest. The world would be a better place if more people consciously stepped away from the self-reinforcing filter bubble of social media.
Is your social media feed an echo chamber? Do you think that’s a bad thing? Do you try to break out of it, or do you embrace it? Share your thoughts in the comments below!
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