The election of Donald Trump in the United States was a surprise to many, but should it have been? A lot of people were shocked that Trump garnered so much support, when they hadn’t seen any evidence of it among their peers. How could non-Trump supporters have been so blindsided? How could they have been ignorant of what a sizeable portion of the population was thinking? The answer: ideological silos, also known as echo chambers.
An ideological silo occurs when someone is surrounded by news stories and political opinions that they already agree with. This concept is not new, the ideological silo is born out of the geographic silo. Historically, societies were ignorant of differing ideas and ways of life due to the limited ability to travel and slower methods of communication. Given our access to a vast array of news sources online, it’s surprising that we are still sheltering ourselves within ideological silos.
Social media plays a significant role in creating ideological silos.
It was previously thought that online news would democratize news and journalism. That the population would be exposed to many viewpoints, and not just the viewpoints of state and corporately owned news sources. Surprisingly, it has had the opposite effect especially within the context of social media.
Social media plays a significant role in creating ideological silos. According to the Pew Research Center, 61% of Millennials and 51% of Generation Xers consume most of their political coverage from Facebook. 60% of Baby Boomers get theirs from local television news stations; however, a sizeable portion do consume political content on Facebook. This makes Facebook a leading source of information on politics and world events.
Studies have shown that people often ignore news stories that support an opposing view point on their social media feeds. Instead they read and share stories that support their existing world view.
“I don’t want to end up disliking someone for some idiotic Facebook post.”
In addition, is the very real desire to avoid conflict with friends and family, and it’s no wonder that we take advantage of customized newsfeed settings. This is one of the reasons Paul Kenny, a teacher from Windsor, Ontario, has stopped using Facebook except for its messenger app earlier this year, stating “I don’t want to end up disliking someone for some idiotic Facebook post.”
Kenny is not alone in his desire to avoid political conflict with friends and family on social media. A Pew Research Center study found that 37% of social media users are “worn out by the political content” they encountered on social media, and 59% find it stressful to engage in political debate with others on social media.
The frustration of dealing with heated political posts on Facebook is what led Kenny to stop using it. “The tipping point was during the U.S. presidential election, because that really brought out a lot of hate. It brought out a lot of fake news. It brought out a lot of people linking to things that they hadn’t really researched.”
Kenny found that trying to engage in political debate on Facebook was a mostly futile effort. The prominence of ideological silos in social media make meaningful debate difficult. Kenny said, “It keeps people from actually researching what they’re talking about.”
Rania Malik, an employment specialist from New Brunswick, has taken the opposite approach. Malik has increased her political engagement on social media. “I dislike divisive and ignorant rhetoric, and for me- the best way to fight against this is by amplifying voices that are factual and unbiased.”
She also feels the emotional toll of heated arguments on social media, but continues to engage with it, explaining “I understand that for some people, it is overwhelming to see this kind of negativity on platforms like Facebook and Twitter. I felt like that for a little while after the American election. However, the importance of paying attention to social justice outweighs my discomfort. Ignoring social justice issues is what contributes to oppression in our society.”
Getting most of your news and political coverage from Facebook can be problematic. Aside from the above mentioned issues, the political posts that we see in our Facebook newsfeeds are skewed toward our established views. Facebook newsfeeds are personalized based on what links we click on and what posts we like. As a result, most of the political content we see on Facebook reflects our pre-existing opinions.
Media literacy is one of the best tools we have.
So how do we balance the need to know what is going on in the world with the fear that a Facebook post that will harm our relationships? Or more bluntly put, how do we keep our sanity in this environment? There’s no clear-cut answer. Everyone’s tolerance for political debate varies depending on the subject, the participants, and the level of respect in the debate. However, there are a couple of factors that can help you stay out of an ideological silo (and keep your sanity intact).
Media literacy is one of the best tools we have. Often the most sensational or inflammatory headlines appear in fake news articles. If other news outlets are not picking up the story, then there’s a good chance the story is fake. Mosaic Times recently published a guide on how to spot fake articles and websites.
Another way to stay out of silos is by making a conscious effort to engage with opposing viewpoint and keep the discourse respectful. Read articles from a variety of publications. If you have a debate about current events with a friend on social media try to be respectful in your language, and hopefully they’ll do the same.
That being said, sometimes it is wise to unfriend someone on social media if their posts are hateful or because their online behaviour is abusive. Keeping yourself out of an ideological silo shouldn’t come at the cost of protecting yourself or your loved ones.
Avoiding echo chambers is important to maintaining our democracy and limiting hyper partisanship. Social media doesn’t make it any easier. Whether you unplug from social media or engage with it even more, you have to find the right balance for you.