In the past few days, the Baltimore protests have been the top news story in America. The media has covered the situation in relatively predictable fashion — each telling slightly different versions of the same narrative, many focusing in on the biggest selling points for ratings/virality—among them: property destruction and images of a burning CVS, arrests and clashes with police, a protester performing Michael Jackson’s ‘Beat It,’ and Tonya Graham catching her son and slapping him for participating in one of the protests (or “riots” depending on what channel you were watching).
Most of the biggest TV news outlets — CNN, MSNBC, FOX, etc. have followed their usual trend of neglecting the more substantive questions — the ‘why’ behind the violence — in exchange for video footage and sensationalist coverage that they hope will go ‘viral’ online or get eyeballs on TV screens, and make them more money. However, despite these common threads in their coverage, one can clearly see their narratives diverge and cater to their respective audiences. This trend has is just as disturbing as their lack of substance, and one that I see as widespread across the news media spectrum— both as presented on television and social media.
As a person of strong left-leaning political views, my Facebook and Twitter feeds are full of blogs and news outlets like Jezebel, Gawker, Black Girl Dangerous, Mother Jones, Salon, Colorlines, The Huffington Post, and others. For a couple years (since Facebook made itself into a good place for news gathering) I have been constantly reading and consuming this content. As a result of my desire to know what was happening in the world, my newsfeeds slowly became filled with a significant amount of content from these pages, and content from my friends began to take a back seat — unless they were regularly posting content that I “liked” and commented on.
My work as a social media strategist made me take a more critical look at how this content was being delivered. Understanding that Facebook’s newsfeed and Google’s search both work through algorithms that are — for better or worse — made to help us see the ‘most relevant’ information to us.
The words ‘most relevant’ mean, loosely, that their goal is to deliver content that they think we’ll enjoy, click on, or will be helpful to users (which also helps sites like Facebook bring in advertising money and keep its shareholders happy). The stated intent of this algorithm-generated ‘tunnel vision’ is to improve user experience, and prevent us from seeing content that might annoy us or even cause us to leave the site in frustration (all social networks are deeply wary of polluting users with bad content and going the direction of MySpace).
Whether benign or malicious, these efforts also end up pushing users into social media “echo chambers” — either through their friend groups or through the pages they follow — where users see the same ideas repeated over and over again. If we see something we don’t like, we can simply unfollow a page or person at the click of a button — even report or block someone for posts we find offensive.
I’m not of the mind that free speech is a value to be held on a pedestal above all others, or in favor of sites having no content filters for hate speech or threats of violence, etc. — but there is something harmful about making users’ social interactions focused on people within their own camp and who share similar opinions. This seems to be the case, even with people who have diverse groups of ‘friends,’ because the algorithm knows that you “like” or click on. It is no secret, either, that diversity of perspective is important for intellectual and emotional growth — it is what helps us learn new things, gather different points of view to help formulate our own perspectives, and make our perspectives more nuanced.
Since so many of us use social media and Google search as our sole sources of news and information gathering, our perspectives are being filtered through somewhat narrow lenses. These divergent lenses, created by social media and other information transmission tools, are clearly contributing to deep divisions between people of differing opinions, and arguably making it easier to alienate, bully, and in many ways bringing us further apart — rather than closer together as many social networks aim to do.
As part of a kind of experiment to test these theories, I spent around 2 months sharing a lot of articles from the aforementioned places that I follow — including many taking strong sociopolitical stances (90% aligned with my own views) on current issues. The articles sparked discussion both productive and unproductive. I found that some of this content made me a target for the vitriol of people I considered friends or acquaintances — I had multiple threaten to “unfriend” me via messenger for posting some of the things that I did and attempting to engage/antagonize people into political dialogue. Others likely quietly “unfollowed” my feed or blocked my posts from theirs without going to the extreme of removing me as a “friend.” I noticed high levels of interaction and sharing on some of the most controversial or intense posts, but the overwhelming majority of the interactions the posts received were positive and supportive.
I took this experience as evidence of my own, personal social media “echo chamber.” I was seeing what I wanted to see, and thinking about what I wanted to think with minimal push-back. As an attempt to escape this, I tried to adjust the lens — I “liked” a few pages on the other end of the spectrum, including FOX News, Bill O’Reilly, and The Kelly File — in an attempt to catch a glimpse of what the ‘other side’ looked like. As I began seeing their posts in my feed, I noted that their lens seems to be equally constraining, and the divides that are expressed in the comments and the narratives they present around different events are incredibly different, but similar in their presentation and limited perspectives. Attempts to reach across these divides, as might be expected, particularly online, are met with unbridled rage and anger — on both sides.
I write this not to suggest that anger or frustration is unjustified, or call for greater ‘civility’ in social interactions. Sometimes, a bit of anger — even violence — is necessary for healing and positive action, as the protesters in Baltimore (and in other cases worldwide) have shown us all. I write to call for awareness of a potentially harmful and deeply divisive trend — and suggest we all attempt to seek out different perspectives.
I say this because there is a danger in allowing ourselves to wear blinders. In order to combat this tunnel vision and make ourselves wiser, we must take them off, and actively look for new information in unexpected places. Consciously choosing to do so can foster deeper understanding, greater diversity of thought and opinion, and help us know our enemies (and allies). Even if these attempts mean we only despise them more deeply, we must at least do the emotional and intellectual work it takes to understand, humanize, and combat them. Otherwise, we may never be able to grow — or completely heal.