Trapped in the echo chamber: News that confirms only your beliefs can be ‘a very dangerous thing’

Sid Bedingfield
Sid Bedingfield, a professor at the University of Minnesota, says the echo chamber is ‘a very dangerous thing.’
Photo By: Photo courtesy of Daphnie Yuan

Eighteen-year-old David Jaffe is about as politically involved as any teenager.

A self-proclaimed political aficionado, Jaffe starts his day by listening to National Public Radio, sneaks peeks between classes at news notifications on his phone, and drives his car, displaying a Barack Obama bumper sticker, to Model United Nations practice, where he simulates United Nations discussions and procedures.

Yet even civically engaged teenagers such as Jaffe are vulnerable to the phenomenon of the “echo chamber,” in which people encounter opinions that align with only their own worldviews, according to University of Minnesota professor Sid Bedingfield.

“The idea is that in an echo chamber, one message is delivered … repeatedly,” Bedingfield said. “That’s a very dangerous thing.”

While echo chambers have existed as long as mass media, the explosion of niche media outlets may be making young viewers and readers increasingly susceptible, Bedingfield said.

As social media has gained popularity as a primary source of news, especially for teenagers, algorithms used by platforms such as Facebook and Twitter often show users more of the content they have expressed interest in on their feeds. These algorithms also often filter out posts with viewpoints different than the user’s, Bedingfield said.

“[But the algorithms] didn’t start out as some insidious effort to create filter bubbles,” Bedingfield said. “No! It was a rational response to information overflow.”

When Bedingfield was young, he said, people relied on a few major TV networks, radio stations and newspapers for information. People shared a common set of facts, even if they had different interpretations, he said, and politics were more consensus-driven.

Now, with more niche media outlets to choose from, people’s news feeds are becoming personalized to reflect what they already believe, Bedingfield said.

The result? More misunderstandings, teenagers say.

Jaffe, of Mesa, Arizona, considers himself a “moderate Democrat” and discovered the existence of his own echo chamber only after working for Senator John McCain’s reelection campaign in 2016.

“I had seen the GOP as one-dimensional prior to working on the campaign,” Jaffe said. “I was expecting, to be honest, mostly older, white males since that is the stereotypical image [I] have of Republicans thanks to media renditions and political parodies.”

Yet after working for Sen. McCain’s campaign, Jaffe better understood the diversity in age, race and political views within the Republican party, he said.

As an intern, he went canvassing door-to-door and retweeted Twitter posts supporting the campaign. This led him to constantly read and contemplate conservative arguments, some of which he has now adopted into his own political beliefs, he said.

Several teenagers shared Jaffe’s eagerness to better understand alternative viewpoints.

“I find value in reading the ideas of people [who] do not agree [with] me because I only have one life,” said 18-year-old Kevin Omans of Alexandria, Virginia. “I [can’t] experience what others have, but by reading their words, I am able to gain an appreciation for their worldview.”

Now, some even say that young adults may be more adept at finding multiple sides of the picture than older adults. Teenagers who have recognized the Internet’s power to share more perspectives have a distinct advantage over adults, said Bedingfield.

“They’re just at home in this digital environment in a way that I’m probably still not,” he said.

This Internet literacy allows for easy access to a plethora of news for teenagers like Isa Turilli, a 17-yearold from Arlington, Virginia, who regularly receives BBC News notifications on her phone and laptop. A wider range of perspectives, too, is accessible to youth like Omans, who reads foreign media reports on American events every day to gain a more well-rounded understanding of current events.

This style of news consumption is an integral part of avoiding and escaping echo chambers, said Pioneer Press capitol bureau chief Rachel Stassen-Berger.

“I read liberal blogs and conservative blogs, liberal news sites and conservative news sites,” she said. “I get to have a very mixed, omnivorous news diet.”

Yet even with this omnivorous diet, echo chambers are difficult to avoid without proper training, said Bedingfield. He is currently revamping his own introductory communications classes to emphasize how to think critically and evaluate sources. He wants readers to analyze information rather than “just take it in and spit it back out.”

“Don’t believe anybody,” he said. “You don’t want to be cynical, but you do want to be skeptical.”

TEEN’S TAKE: How to pop your filter bubble – even when you’re tired

As both a journalist and a high school student, I like to believe I am extremely wary and proactive regarding echo chambers. Because of my last four years with ThreeSixty, I have been immersed in a peer group that is unusually aware of different perspectives on current events. It’s easier for me to seek out information from all sides because of the people I surround myself with and the activities I choose.

Yet simultaneously, I’m a busy high school student. I understand what it’s like to get home with an endless mountain of homework to slog through and approximately five hours until school starts again. At that point, I can’t physically summon the brain cells to make myself consider whether the news I’m reading is from the same source I used last night, or the night before, or even the night before that.

In such situations, I would recommend the tips below, which require very few brain cells and may help broaden the perspectives you encounter:

Don’t unfriend people you disagree with on social media. While some opinions may seem abrasive, overbearing or downright abhorrent, it’s important to consider the validity of each argument. In my own experience, most people have reasons for posting what they do, and it’s valuable to try to understand those reasons.

Use AllSides.com to vary your news sources. AllSides.com uses bias ratings to present users with news articles with biases on the political left, right and center. It’s essentially a one-stop shop for news from a wide variety of perspectives.

Get offline, and go purposefully talk to people whose opinions don’t align with yours. During my time at ThreeSixty, I have always felt face-to-face interviews help me get into the minds of my sources most intimately and accurately. The same holds true for everyday conversation. Speaking in-person with a variety of people is ideal for preventing echo chambers.

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