With the ever-increasing trend of social media, we find ourselves amidst a shift from comparing our imperfect lives with the imperfect lives of our five to six neighbours to comparing our lives to a curated compilation of the perfect moments from a much wider pool of people, leaving us in a state of constantly craving for social validation and giving birth to insecurities. Where it gets more alarming is through a phenomenon called Echo Chambers. Put simply, it’s not just the other users on social media that you have to worry about, but the fundamental objective of social media companies is also not aligned with your own.
The primary goal of every social media that we use today is to keep you engaged for as long as possible because that is how they extract the most value from a user. Whether that’s Amazon wanting you to buy more things or Facebook wanting you to scroll past as many ads as possible, retention time is critical! To achieve this goal, app algorithms are getting increasingly better at learning about their users and using that information to channel similar content to the users’ feeds. Although the idea of being provided with the information that you want without searching for it makes our lives easier but long term, it’s changing people.
These algorithms make sure that we are surrounded by content that we like; for instance, if a user comes across an Instagram post endorsing a shoe brand and the user engages with the post, the algorithm will tailor that users feed to funnel more ads and posts that reinforce and uphold that particular brand to inevitably increase the time the user spends on the app. This leads the user to be encapsulated in a bubble, surrounded by information that strengthens their beliefs and distant from content that might contradict their beliefs. It is these bubbles that we call Echo Chambers.
Brand endorsements and ads are one thing, but this polarization becomes important when considering real-world issues, for instance, politics, abortion, climate change, nuclear power and for a lot of it, it’s damaging our ability to consider contrasting points of view and compromise. That’s one part of it but what makes echo chambers even more harmful to society is that for the vast majority of the content that we are being funnelled into consuming, there is a strong incentive for it to be negative. We as humans are programmed to treat negative information more important than positive information potentially because of our protective instincts, and so this is why most of the news/content that we are being served is negative, causing people to not be channelled into strong viewpoints but into strongly negative viewpoints.
The cherry on top of all of this is the false sense of confidence that the internet provides, which reinforces the “Dunning Kruger Effect”, a common phenomenon where people overestimate how much they understand things they don’t really understand at all. If we plot a graph of someone’s confidence in their knowledge against their actual ability, we get a U shape, suggesting that people who almost know nothing think that there’s almost nothing to know, and therefore, they know what should be known, people who know the intermediate amount will know enough to know how much it is out there to know and then the experts who lie at right extreme of the graph.
This Dunning Kruger effect has existed since humanity started, but the reason it is more significant now than ever is that the internet and the echo chambers that it creates can enhance this phenomenon’s presence. For instance, if one has no interest in learning about a particular subject because they feel like they know it already, the internet will never serve it to them. If someone believes that the earth is flat, they are less likely to come across any information on their social media feeds because the algorithm believes that they are less likely to engage with it. Hence, the internet has given people the power to completely distance themselves from potentially what could be true and correct on the basis that it doesn’t hold their own beliefs to be true. This leads not only to extremely strong negative polarized viewpoints on topics that people don’t fully understand but also an even higher inflated sense of confidence in those viewpoints.
We might be heading to a future with people carrying black and white opinions ready to take down each other thanks to echo chambers. Despite all of this, what we can all do to remedy a lot of the traps that the internet can set for us is to refocus and consider what made us come to a conclusion about any viewpoint and, in general, to always be ready to evolve and adapt to other people’s opinions, after all, we are all humans.