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Life in an echo chamber

Published: November 22, 2016

Two weeks ago, we as a country elected a reality television personality the 45th president of the United States.

A man with no prior political experience. A man currently undergoing multiple criminal investigations. A man who denies climate change. A man who threatens to tear families apart through deportation. A man who threatens to bar people from entering the country because of their religious beliefs. A man who openly bragged about using wealth and fame to sexually assault women.

More than 60 million Americans walked into voting booths on November 8th and decided that man was fit to lead one of the most powerful countries in the world.

My post-election thoughts

I did not vote for Donald Trump. The thought of that man influencing important policy decisions on things like climate change and women’s reproductive rights makes me sick. The nausea comes in waves.

But I’m not writing this post to argue politics. Honestly I’m not. I’m not writing to bash Trump either. I don’t agree with most of his policies, ethics, or behavior, but many Americans do. 60 million people voted for him, remember?

It’s not the fact that Trump was elected president that concerns me the most. It’s that I was so utterly blindsided by this result.

A problem

I definitely lean liberal, and I’ve leaned that way my entire adult life. I support equal rights and equal opportunities for everyone. If it takes social programs and tax dollars to achieve that, then that’s a price I’m currently willing to pay. I believe our country and all who reside within benefit when the weakest among us are lifted up.

In 2008 I backed Barack Obama because I preferred his economic and healthcare policies over John McCain’s. I backed Obama again in 2012 because I preferred his policies over the ones proposed by Mitt Romney. In both elections I had a strong preference for one candidate over the other, but in both elections I understood why McCain and Romney had wide appeal. While I often disagreed with their supporters, I had a base understanding of what they felt and why they felt it.

This election was different. The thought of Trump being elected president was so absurd in my mind that I never considered it a legitimate outcome. I thought Hillary Clinton was going to win without a fight.

I naively thought a vote for Trump was a vote for his racist, bigoted, and xenophobic opinions. And sure, some number of Trump supporters undoubtedly agree with him on those fronts. But I refuse to believe 60 million people voted for Trump purely on the basis of hate. No way. His supporters are many and diverse, and they carry with them a multitude of nuanced reasons for voting the way they did. But right now, it’s impossible for me to understand any justification for putting a man like Trump in any position of power, let alone the preeminent position of power. There’s that nausea again.

And to me that’s the real problem. It’s not Trump (not yet). It’s that at no point during this election have I had an ounce of empathy for Trump supporters.

I know I’m not alone in feeling this way either. There are huge numbers on both sides that are incapable of understanding the other side’s perspectives. Whatever common ground there was to stand on back in 2008 and 2012 feels nonexistent now. We’ve lost the ability to empathize with each other.

An invisible bubble

So we have an empathy problem. Okay, but why? And is it really any worse than it’s been in the past?

First, yes, I think it’s much worse now than in the past. And as to why? I think it comes down to how most of us consume and share information now. I think it’s a social media problem. Hear me out.

When you log into Facebook or Twitter or Instagram, the first thing you see is your news feed–all the stuff being shared by the people you follow. But this list of stuff isn’t complete or even chronological. It’s a filtered list of content algorithmically personalized for you to keep you reading longer and coming back more frequently.

Companies like Facebook are incentivized to keep you on their platform for as long as possible. That’s how they make money. They serve you information they want you to click on and share. But of course this means Facebook is disincentivized from showing you anything that might make you feel uncomfortable. Because if you log in and see your news feed flooded with headlines that challenge your personal identity, you won’t engage as much.

Facebook knows exactly what you like, who you like, what you click on, share, follow, read, comment on, and watch. It knows who you agree with, the groups you engage with, and the kinds of people you pick fights with. It’s gotten really good over the years at showing you agreeable posts and shielding you from everything else. It’s got $100 billion invested in that pursuit.

Social media is a bubble, and the platform holders are careful not to let in too much that might challenge your beliefs.

Obviously this is a huge problem because it means we’re constantly fed information we already agree with which can create an illusion of truth and certainty. But the problem is even bigger than that because this model rewards biased content creation.

Rampant misinformation

Before the internet, almost all news was funneled through a small number of newspaper publications, television stations, and radio broadcasts. These were professional organizations that placed a premium on journalistic integrity. Back then facts were facts, and any accusations of bias were taken seriously. There were even rules in place to encourage equal exposure to opposing points of view:

“The equal-time rule specifies that U.S. radio and television broadcast stations must provide an equivalent opportunity to any opposing political candidates who request it…The equal-time rule was created because the FCC thought the stations could easily manipulate the outcome of elections by presenting just one point of view, and excluding other candidates.”

The internet changed everything. There isn’t a single funnel of information to police anymore. There are millions, and it’s impossible to hold each one accountable. Many who write and publish online do have integrity, but it’s no longer a requirement. You can write bullshit online and still have an audience.

Don’t get me wrong, I love the internet and what it’s enabled. Without it I wouldn’t be sharing these thoughts with you now. But the internet, if misused, is a scary thing. Misinformation has never traveled faster or looked as similar to the truth as it does online today.

You see, Facebook isn’t the only one profiting from your social media habits. For any website, there’s a lot of money to be made from ads. More website traffic equals more ad impressions equals more money, and almost every news site operating today relies heavily on Facebook to drive traffic. The goal is to publish content that will light a fire on social media and get readers to share it with their circles of influence, which can be a difficult thing to achieve with integrity.

Moderate reporting will never spread as fast as sensationalism, which is why biased news is such a huge problem on both sides. While these kinds of stories appear legitimate and credible, this kind of reporting is more interested in click-through rates than it is in sharing the facts.

Here’s a cheap recipe for viral content: Target a passionate group of people and feed them exactly what they want to hear. Reinforce their previously held beliefs regardless of the facts. Feed them sexy headlines like “Trump once called Republicans the dumbest group of voters in the country” or “Pope Francis shocks world, endorses Donald Trump.” Neither is true, but similar stories have been shared millions of times this year.

Facebook makes it easier than ever to reach insulated groups of people and exploit their biases. It’s easy because social media bubbles give us all a false confidence that our current opinions are correct, which encourages the bad habit of sharing information without fact checking it first. This is how biased stories start to legitimize. But they only legitimize inside our own bubbles. If you share a pro-Clinton article, chances are that article will appear predominantly in the news feeds of other pro-Clinton people. So when false information spreads, it often only infects those on one side of an issue.

The result is that different “facts” target different groups of people online, which means offline, we can’t even agree what the facts are anymore. And if we can’t agree on something as basic as the facts, how can we ever hope to understand each other’s perspectives?

A call to action

That’s what I want to do now that I’ve failed to do all year–I want to better understand the other side’s perspectives.

As someone who did not vote for Trump, there’s a temptation to view all Trump supporters as a single monolithic entity. A monolith that represents the absolute worst of Donald Trump’s rhetoric. We need to resist this temptation.

When Trump talks about banning Muslims from entering the country, I get furious. It’s ignorant and shameful to reduce an individual to the worst perceived qualities of a single group to which they belong. It’s unfair, it panders to bias, it ignores individual identity and nuance, and it strips empathy from the conversation.

Reducing Trump supporters to their candidate’s racist and bigoted remarks does the same thing. There’s nuance and individual identity under the surface that we willingly ignore when we resort to name calling. I don’t know why 60 million people voted for Trump, but I want to. I’m ready to re-learn empathy.

Here are a few things you can do if you want to join me:

  • Be mindful of your bubbles. Even if you don’t think they exist, they do. Look harder.
  • Give equal time to differing viewpoints. Seek out varied (legitimate) news sources that challenge your worldview. Don’t shy away from discomfort.
  • Do your due diligence to separate fact from fiction. Understand the difference between truth and your desire for something to be true.
  • Remember that everyone is living a life as full and complex as your own. Their opinions are equally full and complex.

Something I’m not doing

I refuse to accept the current state of things as normal. This election was not normal, this outcome is not normal, and the next four years will not be normal. People (especially minorities) have every right to feel afraid.

I want to learn more about Trump supporters, and I sincerely hope I’m able to find common ground with them, but doing so will in no way lessen the critical eye I have cast toward Trump and his administration.

We can’t afford a “wait and see” approach. During this election far too many people chose not to take the things Trump said seriously, and that needs to end. He’s in line to be the next President of the United States, the highest position of power in one of the most influential countries in the world. Whether you voted for him or not, we as a society need to hold him up to the highest standards we have. Every statement, promise, and policy needs to be taken seriously.

Democracy happens every day, not just once every four years, and I don’t intend to sit back and let the next four years happen to me. Now more than ever, we need to fight for the causes that matter to us the most. We vote on election day, but really we vote every day with our dollars and our attention. Don’t check out of politics just because you’re unhappy with the outcome. I’m not happy either, but I’m not walking away. Those who decide the future will be the ones who are paying attention.

Be active. Be passionate. Find causes that matter and fight like hell for them! Respectfully, of course.

Worthwhile reading

Obviously I’m not the first person to notice these things and be concerned by them. If you want to learn more, I consider the four links below essential reading and watching.

How We Broke Democracy by Tobias Rose-Stockwell (11 min read)

“Because of this lack of pluralism, we are systematically losing our ability to empathize. This is what we now see in the wider world — from Brexit to Trump to hyper-nationalistic movements worldwide. People globally no longer have the same incentives to find a shared understanding. This is not just dissatisfaction with globalization or the status quo. This is how we are changing our society by not seeing each other.”

The “Other Side” Is Not Dumb by Sean Blanda (6 min read)

“Sharing links that mock a caricature of the Other Side isn’t signaling that we’re somehow more informed. It signals that we’d rather be smug assholes than consider alternative views. It signals that we’d much rather show our friends that we’re like them, than try to understand those who are not.”

Beware online “filter bubbles” TED Talk by Eli Pariser (9 min video)

“As web companies strive to tailor their services (including news and search results) to our personal tastes, there’s a dangerous unintended consequence: We get trapped in a ‘filter bubble’ and don’t get exposed to information that could challenge or broaden our worldview.”

Sonder: The Realization That Everyone Has A Story by John Koenig and The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows (3 min video)

“You are the main character—the protagonist—the star at the center of your own unfolding story…But there in the background, faint and out of focus, are the extras. The random passersby. Each living a life as vivid and complex as your own.”

Thanks for reading! Be good to each other.


Image credit: Todd Quackenbush