When so many people are trapped in “echo chambers”, it is doubtful whether content filtering, tighter oversight and regulation of social media will solve the problem of polarization. A moment before we bid farewell to media star, Donald Trump.
Researchers distinguish between “echo chambers” and “epistemic bubbles”. Two different terms for a similar condition, in which a person is encapsulated in a bubble into which opinions and thoughts that mirror his own are introduced – be it via social media feeds or the TV channel they choose to watch the news. In an epistemic bubble, a person selectively abstains from opinions he dislikes. He consciously excludes them and chooses to be exposed to only those opinions of people who share his thoughts. In an echo chamber, the phenomenon takes on a more extreme form: not only are contrary opinions avoided, but they are discredited and undermined.
In fact, this is what is happening to most of us. Almost everyone’s feed includes proponents of the opposite opinion, even if only to keep an ear to the ground as to goings-on in the enemy camp, but the mood is violent, actively shutting mouths and blocking ears. In echo chambers, other voices are heard only to discredit them. The goal is to reinforce and radicalize the prevailing opinion in the chamber. The mechanism obliterates trust in the other side. It creates authoritative figures, who represent a world in which the counterparty is corrupt and untrustworthy.
Although the phenomenon is not new, in election campaigns it is taken to the extreme, and in the recent US elections it had an especially palpable impact. Tribal campfires disappeared a long time ago. Since each population group consumes the media that resonate with values that are a match with its own, it is harder to get voters to switch sides. It is only when ‘Real Reality’ is particularly strong (such as during the COVID-19 crisis) that it succeeds in penetrating the smokescreen created by the postmodern media, which address each audience in its own language. Arbiters of taste have disappeared. Opinion shapers who create a consensus have become extinct. There are no objective, impartial and unbiased media outlets. There is no agreement on shared values.
Consider this information carefully: at the end of November, three weeks after the elections, more than seventy percent of Trump voters bought into his accusations that the elections were stolen from him. More than seventy percent whose bubble wasn’t pierced. And it makes no difference that there was not a single shred of evidence to support this. Not one. And yet…
As a result of this reality, campaigns and efforts to sway public opinion have become an especially complex task. After all, how do you get people to switch sides if they aren’t willing to listen, and if they do listen, it is only to denigrate, discredit and undermine?
What can be done? We would start with social media, one network in particular, which has accumulated excessive power, free of any real regulation. Biden may dismantle Facebook and separate it from Instagram and WhatsApp. He may also possibly toughen his position on Facebook’s fact checking apparatus.
This is where the traditional media must step up and put far more care and effort into differentiating itself from social media by dealing as much as possible with facts and as little as possible with opinions, estimates and prophecies, refining the common denominator shared by the public rather than celebrating the divisive.
Photo: Gage Skidmore | creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0 | Edited by Unik