Last January, Netflix released The Social Dilemma, a groundbreaking documentary, directed by American filmmaker Jeff Orlowski, that offers a scathing critique of social media and the tech companies that created it. While Orlowsi explores numerous implications of widespread social media use, he specifically highlights the fundamental algorithms that underpin our most popular social media platforms and systematically “widen the gaps between our knowledge base, politics and personal worldviews.” Social media, while giving us the illusion of access to a wide range of perspectives, often does little more than hold up a mirror to reflect the worldview we already hold.
Our preferred news sources and social media platforms act as epistemic bubbles, “informational networks from which relevant voices have been excluded by omission” or worse, as echo chambers, where relevant voices are actively discredited. The choices we make in the media we consume, consciously and unconsciously, reveal how these two phenomena operate concurrently to create self-reinforcing, closed information networks.
Both echo chambers and epistemic bubbles exaggerate individuals’ confidence in previously-held beliefs. C Thi Nguyen, Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Utah Valley University, explains that while the omission of dissenting voices can be purposeful, more often it is largely inadvertent:
“Even if we’re not actively trying to avoid disagreement, our Facebook friends tend to share our views and interests. When we take networks built for social reasons and start using them as our information feeds, we tend to miss out on contrary views and run into exaggerated degrees of agreement.”
The fact is that, whether we are aware of it or not, we often develop our opinions and make decisions based on limited information.
The Power of Multiple Perspectives
If our news media environment is set-up to filter the information we receive, it is up to us to seek out the perspectives that are missing. The good news is that there are numerous examples, on the local and national scale, of people creating opportunities to connect with those with whom they disagree.
Based in Portland, OR, the August Wilson Red Door Project is an arts organization dedicated to provoking conversations about race. Since 2016, the organization has been best known for Hands Up, an emotionally-raw compilation of “seven searing monologues about racial profiling and police violence,” each told from the perspectives of a person of color.” In 2018, Project founders Lesli Mones and Kevin Jones premiered Cop Out, a sister show featuring monologues from the perspective of police Cops interviewed for the show described pervasive burnout, being beaten up while on duty, and the challenge of deciding whether or not to fire a weapon. “Our mission [at the Red Door Project ] is to change the racial ecology through the arts,” Lesi Mones said. “That means different parts of the ecology need to be represented, and those voices need to come into interaction with each other.”
Founded in 2003, StoryCorps’ mission is to preserve and “share humanity’s stories in order to build connections between people and create a more just and compassionate world.” Since being founded in 2003, the organization has recorded and archived over 60,000 conversations. These recorded conversations usually take place between friends, family members, and loved ones, but the organization’s most recent project, One Small Step, uses the interview model to “begin undoing the idea of ‘us’ vs. ‘them,” by asking people to speak to strangers with different political views. During the 2018-19 pilot project, more than 800 Americans in 40 U.S. cities recorded conversations with strangers on the opposite end of the political spectrum. After the program, 82% of surveyed participants said that “they had taken some action or made changes in their lives as a result of the One Small Step experience,” and almost half the participants reported “reexamining their assumptions about another person or group of people.”
Both of these organizations highlight the power of seeking out perspectives other than our own. The August Wilson Red Door Project and StoryCorps have not only impacted the lives of the individuals involved in the projects, but in creating opportunities to build empathy through authentic listening, they are shifting the culture of contempt and dehumanization that has characterized our increasingly polarized political landscape.
But this work does not need to happen on a city-wide or nation-wide scale to be impactful.
Take One Small Step
We can each begin to shift the culture of polarization through small daily actions. In spite of the algorithms that curate our newsfeeds, we are in charge of how we consume media. Here are five ways to start taking back control:
1. Follow sources that feature perspectives other than your own.
By following diverse perspectives on social media, you can start to alter your own media ecosystem.
- AllSides is a news platform with a commitment to “strengthen . . . democratic society with balanced news, diverse perspectives, and real conversation.” The All Sides Bias Media Chart categorizes media sources on a wide political spectrum, and can be helpful to seeking out media sources from across the political spectrum.
- News and News describes itself as “an independent and non-partisan news source.” Their experienced journalistic team is based in the U.S., Europe, and Asia. The site offers a “Bias Meter,” which “quantifies the political leanings of all the posted articles.
- Check out the comment thread on this LifeHacker article for recommendations from readers of sources that will help you “break out of your filter bubble.”
2. Keep asking the important questions.
When consuming media, ask these critical questions.
- Who is writing the story?
- Who benefits from the story?
- Who is missing from the story?
These questions can act as a touch point to help you, and your students, assess the potential bias of any source.
3. Avoid generalizations.
While it is human nature to process information by categorizing it, making overgeneralizations often erase the nuances of an argument. When discussing an article you’ve read, avoid words like “always,” “never,” “nobody,” or “everyone.” These kinds of statements are rarely true and often lead to misinformation.
4. Reframe disagreement.
Disagreements tend to set-up an oppositional dynamic. The problem with using this “naive model of agreement” is that it encourages us to categorize people into “on-our-side [or] not-on-our-side.” But the more complex and open-ended a question becomes, the more likely people are to disagree about it. Consider the current global health crisis. The pandemic raises a number of complicated questions; many of which have nuanced answers. Therefore, any solution requires government, health, and business leaders to consider a range of variables, from public health guidelines to economic recovery. Agreement will not come easily, and that’s ok. We need to reframe disagreement. It’s not bad; it’s inevitable. If someone disagrees with you, they are not against you. They too are grappling with a complicated and challenging question.
5. Model curiosity.
In a polarized society, when we believe our way of life or belief system are under threat, it is natural for our first instinct to be to defend our own way of thinking. By modeling curiosity and asking questions first, we show that our first instinct is to listen to better understand. Only after understanding a different perspective, can we begin to have a productive and informed conversation.
Our Kids Are Watching
While it’s important to help our students understand multiple perspectives on current issues, we must first model this behavior ourselves. Our news sources and social media platforms are not conducive to seeking out divergent viewpoints. But, by taking small, concrete steps to diversify the news we consume we can start to break down the “filter bubbles” that have contributed to the damaging culture of polarization that has come to characterize our country. Only then can we start helping our children do the same.