Escape the Echo Chamber
The social media echo chamber is reverberating with astonishment at how a nation of free, seemingly well-meaning people could vote someone like Donald Trump into office.
What happened on November 8 is one thing. More concerning is how we missed all the signals leading up to it: a preponderance of fake pro-Trump anti-Clinton stories, a 300K subscriber-strong The_Donald sub-reddit, and a major voter suppression digital campaign. These are just a few ways that a rabid but dedicated online army of Trump supporters slid right under our smug noses:
From the earliest days of his campaign, Donald Trump has been buoyed by a contingent of 4chan devotees who pass around memes, swastikas and campaign slogans with the same winking irreverence. Their pursuit of lulz is explicit: They trend hashtags like #Repealthe19th and #DraftOurDaughters to “trigger” feminists; they juxtapose Stars of David with pictures of Clinton to — in the word’s of one troll’s Twitter bio — “offend you if you are Liberal, Politically Correct, Feminist, Democrat or Piers Morgan.”
– Washington Post, “The only winners in this election are trolls”, 11/3/16
I remember dismissing these annoying memes as nothing more than perverse Internet antagonizers looking for a sick laugh. Also, most never even made it to my echo chamber because the majority of friends are Hillary supporters. Little did I know that a whole town of Macedonian teens had been quietly planting pro-Trump propaganda into the digital streams of millions of Americans, spreading misinformation and making digital gold. Meanwhile most of us continued to clap our hands at an all-but-assured Hillary victory. Pwned by the trolls, as they would say.
While we could decry this as a sign of the times, the echo chamber itself is not a novel concept. Clustering effects can be traced back to prehistoric days, when we stuck to our tribes and kept safe distance from opposing ones viewed as potential dangers. It’s not surprising that we’ve formed the modern equivalent with digital tribes: information silos where we avoid perspectives that fail to jive with our own, not because they are a threat to our existence, but because they’re uncomfortable or an inconvenience.
Instinctively, I think we know that reality does not mirror our online lives. We know that getting hundreds of likes on a post doesn’t mean a thing in the real world, that it merely reinforces our confirmation biases by validating our opinions and letting the algorithm know to prioritize similar updates so we can continue to be validated. And yet, eerily so, this is how we become an extension of the machine. With regular exposure, our view of the “human experience” can become distorted and ultimately, altered by these somewhat arbitrary measures of online engagement.
It happens each time we scroll through our Facebook feed and peek innocuously into the lives of our friends, many whom (if you’re like me) come from similarly elite insulated perches. Socially-correct commentary, snaps from the latest jet-setting adventure, and trendy NYC/BK/SF/LA updates become our frame of reference. Repeat this prescription 3x a day and gradually, it becomes easy to forget that most people don’t live our lives. That middle and working-class people don’t like the same things we do. That statements which seem so blatantly racist to us are simply a social norm for someone who lives in a small town with little exposure to anything multicultural beyond the Mexicans who do their jobs for half the pay. (This isn’t to excuse hate crimes or racist statements, but it is a call to understand why people say the things they say instead of instantly dismissing.)
In short, we’ve fallen victim to our own social utopia, becoming far too self-involved and boutique-y in our causes – – myself included.
Our information diet has literally changed the kind of people we are and how we relate to each other. We’re more connected than ever at a superficial level, but out of touch with the broader world. I’d like to believe that media is better than this. At its best, media should encourage us to question, seek truth and think deeply about the beam of our shared plight, instead of reinforcing the same arguments with the same people who will vigorously raise the same concerns that we all nod our heads to. Ay! (See SNL’s Bubble sketch for a humorous, albeit sad but true, reenactment.)
So, how can we be more intentional media consumers and civic citizens? Several ideas come to mind. They are simultaneously complex and primitive. Most are a variation on the “being human” theme, and therein may lie the biggest challenge. I’ve culled them from various online sources – Medium, WaPo, NYT, and yes Facebook – ironically, the outlets most accused of being entrenched in the echo chamber. I share anyway because I believe this is a unique opportunity for me and my fellow liberal upper-class college-educated friends to reach across the aisle, cooperate, and do some good. (Note: I call out this group specifically, only because I do believe our education and privilege makes us well-positioned to wake up and step out of our cocoons more than other groups who face systemic disadvantages or have been marginalized.)
– Educate/Advocate: For those with the privilege and education, in all its varied forms, let’s bolster those who don’t have the same advantages. That starts with getting informed on the topics. Here is a list of resources with a handy script on some of the issues that will certainly come under fire under President-elect Trump (immigration, criminal justice, climate change etc). Just this morning, I found this Call to Action site that easily helps you find your Congressional representative and call him/her with a single tap.
– Listen: What we lack in material needs is surpassed only by our dearth of empathy. Expand beyond your usual circle and listen with an awareness of the vast range of opinions that a democracy both allows and depends on.
– Create Community: Legendary feminist and academic Angela Davis says,
“How do we begin to recover from this shock? By experiencing and building and rebuilding and consolidating community. Community is the answer.”
Create groups to air grievances, then collectively take action. It doesn’t have to be a march or protest. I’ve come across everything from issue research groups to fundraising groups to call centers. Set up booths and small speaking panels. It can also be as simple (and fun!) as inviting friends over for dinner to create a space to talk and being intentional about seeing people in the flesh.
– Innovate: If you’re a coder or designer, build tools to encourage empathy and consensus. We talk a lot about innovation through the lens of the latest startups and STEM education, but another question to consider is how we are innovating to bridge the divide with displaced workers. This is a large contingent that voted for Trump (those who lost their jobs in manufacturing, auto plants, or steel mills). And with the oncoming tide of artificial intelligence , more jobs are at risk of being swept away. Let’s think about the role of labor and how technology can enhance rather than displace their lives.
– Thoughtfully Curate: Here’s something easy for the plugged-in digiphiles. We’re blessed with a panoply of media sources, so there’s no excuse to be passive consumers. Let’s be intentional about what we read and share. At the moment, we don’t know what the algorithms will serve so we must rely on our own flawed yet human minds to curate smart and well-researched pieces . Run up the clicks and views of the best of journalism. Follow smart people on Twitter or Facebook with whom you disagree. (Nick Kristof shared a list of conservative accounts who I’m now following.) Support journalism and pay for a subscription to a news source that you like.
– Lastly, get up and get out: Talking to our perfectly coifed online selves is not where hearts will be won. Resist dwelling in an echo chamber and have those hard conversations in the public square.
Personally, I am making a commitment to write more and proactively talk to people outside my social circle more often. Details on a writing project, centered in conversation, to come.
In some ways, I am hesitant to act. I see a wave of grassroots activism on Facebook and am tempted to believe that others have been sufficiently stirred. Why must I add to the pot? I’m not a political activist and would much rather continue posting perfectly pruned statements from my cocoon. But the reality is that close to half of our nation voted for a shouting orange-haired bully who is proposing to build a wall and create a Muslim registry. Call them silly ideas, but isn’t that we said about people taking ridiculous memes and fake news seriously? About fascist dictators sending people to concentration camps? About a Trump presidency?
Perhaps I am overreacting with hyper-paranoia. But the future dystopia that we predicted would never happen is now our very present reality. If you take anything away from this, please sincerely and earnestly engage with people you don’t understand on a heart-to-heart level. I’m not asking for a fight, just for you to fight in the way that matters most, which is inside. Collectively, that will remind us of who we all are, fundamentally, as humans.
You can wait for others to lead, or you can create your own power.