The term “echo chamber” is enough to send chills down your spine. I know I just got goosebumps thinking about it.
When I was kid, I saw The Truman Show, starring Jim Carrey. If you haven’t seen it, the show’s premise is pretty simple. Jim Carrey plays a man whose entire life is a reality television show. The catch is that the man has no idea. He lives inside an enormous bubble, and every person he’s interacted with, every object he’s interacted with, is part of a big television production.
One day, the man starts to discover his world is a lie.
The movie was very frightening for me as a kid, because I realized I couldn’t prove that my life was not also fabricated. Sure, it was incredibly unlikely, but I couldn’t prove it definitively.
An echo chamber is not unlike the Truman Show. It happens when we surround ourselves with confirmation bias. In 2016, most mainstream media channels were absolutely shocked when Donald Trump was elected president. It seemed impossible that he’d be able to win the presidency over Hilary Clinton. But, as electorates came in, echo chambers everywhere started fracturing. The truth was, of all the different forums of public discourse out there, few of them gave Trump any chance of winning. But, if so many people believed it was impossible for Donald Trump to become president (not just unlikely–laughably implausible), how did he win an election in a democratic republic?
This is what puzzled big media personalities. Despite all of the messaging in the mainstream media, at the polls, the Donald got the votes.
Enter Truman Show syndrome for many Americans.
But, for some people, the echo chamber effect online isn’t as polarizing. I recently discovered that many of my left-leaning friends consider me a right-wing thinker. However, it turns out my right-leaning friends think I’m a left-winger. This happens because of an evil thing inside of myself. I play devil’s advocate with everybody, and I don’t just do it to rile people up. I’m not trying to find little meaningless loopholes, I actually see value in arguments on both sides of an issue.
I’m not alone. There are dozens of us.
But, online, we’re all but invisible. This forbearance from commenting on Facebook posts or sharing political content is the very thing that helps to shield us from echo chambers. Facebook’s algorithm has a more difficult time identifying the political content it thinks we may like.
I know what you’re thinking. “Heh, this guy thinks he’s immune from the echo chamber effect.” Good for you. That’s an intelligent thing to think.
That being said, political moderates sit back and silently read the heated discussions between others, not participating, but fearing that media illiteracy and people defensively digging into their position despite its valid weaknesses will destroy America’s political viability. Phew. I need a Coke after that sentence.
America has a long history of heated political discourse. Our past is littered with absolutely savage retorts back and forth over party lines. It’s the American way. But, I highly doubt anyone will be in a history book thirty or three hundred years from now by using the term “truth bomb” or from flatly denying valid points.
Can you imagine if Abe Lincoln had published the Gettysburg Address on his Facebook page? The comments section would be an absolute dumpster fire.
So who cares? Why write this blog post? Is it just to let you know that your politically moderate friends are there, hidden, watching, and judging your online activity?
But, in a more idealistic way, recognizing that the people who lean toward the poles are the ones making the most noise brings a great deal of comfort. Ambiguity can be scary, but knowing that most issues have merit on both sides is liberating (not liberal or libertarian, but actually liberating!). The most valuable political discourse is not in proving the other side is patently false, it’s debating over how we must prioritize the hierarchy of values surrounding an issue.
Once during the Kavanaugh hearing, my friend and I had an in-depth conversation about allegations of sexual harassment and assault. We recognized the following statements are both true at the same time.
- Some people falsely accuse others of committing sexual harassment or abuse for a myriad of reason
- Many people don’t report true instances of sexual harassment or abuse for a myriad of reasons
Then, we went forward discussing which of the following outcomes we would prefer:
- Jail more innocent people for instances of sexual harassment or abuse
- Jail fewer people guilty of instances of sexual harassment or abuse
There are big considerations on both sides. Taking away a person’s freedom and incarcerating them for a crime that didn’t happen goes against the fabric of U.S. due process. You’ve heard of innocent until guilty I’m sure.
On the other hand, failing to catch true criminals and administer justice for victims could stimulate more sexual assault. It could also send a clear message to other victims that they have a reputation and social standing to lose by bringing their stories forward.
He and I disagreed, but I respect where his conclusion came from, and as my understanding of the issue grows, I wouldn’t be surprised if we eventually switched places.
While your politically polarized friends were arguing about whether Kavanaugh “did it” or not, your politically moderate friends were having conversations like the one above.
If you believe you’re living in the Truman Show, I can’t help you. Clearly, this blog post was not written by a well-meaning guy of his own accord in between bites of his homemade burrito. I must be part of the production crew.
That’d be crazy. But, if I am part of the production crew, you better believe we got nice hats and get sushi in the evenings without you.