In recent years, I’ve been heartened by the number of people who now recognize the problem of millions of Americans self-selecting news and commentary that reinforces their perspective and rarely challenges it. I’ve written on this topic multiple times, pointing to the prominence of social media as one reason for political polarization. Multiple books and documentaries (such as The Social Dilemma) have ratcheted up concerns, prophesying doom unless we adopt better habits in this area.
The most common solution offered to the problem of polarization is to break out of the echo chamber. We’re told to seek out voices from other perspectives and to diversify our sources for news and commentary. I’ve rung that bell a time or two myself, encouraging people to seek out conversation partners who represent different ideologies in order to better understand other viewpoints.
But does this solution work? Is diversifying your media intake the answer? Will listening to people on “the other side” politically, theologically, or culturally foster understanding?
Escaping the Echo Chamber Can Make Polarization Worse
Julia Galef’s The Scout Mindset (which I reviewed earlier this week) includes a chapter that exposes the faulty assumption that “escaping the echo chamber” fixes the problem. In many cases, listening to other voices didn’t lower the temperature, but led to more frustration. One research study demonstrated that many people who deliberately sought out voices from the opposing side politically “learned that the ‘other side’ was even more biased, inaccurate, and grating than they previously believed” (169-170).
You might expect familiarity with ideological opponents to moderate a person’s views, or at least increase understanding of another perspective, but that’s not always the case for those who break out of the echo chamber.
“Conservatives who spent a month reading liberal tweets became dramatically more conservative. Liberals who spent a month reading conservative tweets became slightly more liberal” (170).
The Problem With The Chamber
Right away, you can probably guess why the “echo chamber” experiment didn’t work. Twitter was involved! Whether you’re a conservative reading liberal Twitter, or a liberal reading conservative Twitter, the bigger problem, we might say, is Twitter itself and the type of people who gravitate toward conversation there. In other words, the problem isn’t the echo chamber, but the chamber itself, whether it echoes or not. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram—these are not places for thoughtful, respectful engagement of different viewpoints. (That’s why, whenever you do see a meaningful exchange take place online between ideological opponents, everyone seems so surprised. It’s rare!)
Here’s why Galef believes the echo chamber experiment goes awry:
“Our mistake lies in how we select the sources we listen to. By default, we end up listening to people who initiate disagreements with us, as well as the public figures and media outlets who are the most popular representatives of the other side.”
In other words, trying to escape the echo chamber is likely to bring you into contact with disagreeable people on the other side. Diversifying your news and commentary intake often means you’ll stumble first upon those who cheer for their team and mock and caricature everyone else’s views.
Non-stop cable news and commentary, flame-throwing podcasts and the most obnoxious voices on Twitter—these voices gain the most attention and attract the biggest following. They marshal troops for battle. No one is trying to persuade.
So, simply switching sides for a time, in order to hear out another perspective, just reinforces rather than challenges your presuppositions about “the bad guys.” The Hannity fan tunes into Maddow. The Maddow fan tunes into Hannity. In neither of those cases is someone likely to walk away with greater understanding. The more common experience is shock at how “the other side” drips with condescension and contempt for your views.
The Hard Work of Challenging Yourself
It’s not easy to truly seek to understand an opposing point of view, to assume the best of your ideological opponent, and remain open to tweaking or changing your own perspective. Galef writes:
“Listening to views you disagree with, and taking them seriously enough to have a shot at changing your mind, requires mental effort, emotional effort, and, above all, patience.” (182)
Most people just aren’t up for that. But for those who are, Galef offers a few suggestions that go beyond the simplistic solution to “escape the echo chamber.”
First, she says we should listen to people we find reasonable. It’s important not only to seek out opposing voices but to find people who demonstrate reasonableness in their approach to differences. The goal isn’t to be outraged or entertained, but to think, and thinking requires finding people who challenge you in ways that grow your reasoning skills.
Next, we should find people with whom we share intellectual common ground. Let me apply this suggestion to fellow Christians. If you know of a believer who shares your dedication to foundational Christian truth, yet sees a subject differently (let’s say it’s capital punishment, or the best way to provide health care, or proposals related to racial injustice, or a denominational distinctive that puzzles you, or a cultural tradition), exploring the unity you don’t have on the basis of the common ground you do should stretch you, causing you to question some of your assumptions and to listen carefully to discover why your brother in sister in Christ comes to a different conclusion.
Finally, Galef says that to escape the echo chamber we should listen to people who share our goals. ”Feeling like you’re on the same team in some important way can make it possible to learn from each other, even when your worldviews are otherwise very different.” (176) You may, for example, find someone outside the Christian faith who agrees with you on a political position, but for different reasons. Discussing areas of difference on the basis of common goals is one way of ensuring that you don’t slip into caricaturing or dismissing your differences.
In the end, it’s not enough to break out of the echo chamber. You have to be intentional about the kinds of voices who will replace those echoes. The goal is to be forced to think. And thinking, really thinking these days is harder than we might expect.
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