Escaping the Echo Chamber: ‘No Easy Answers’ in Dealing with Misinformation and Polarization on Social Media

By Melissa Anders

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News consumers, particularly those on social media, tend to read, share and comment on articles that reinforce their opinions and beliefs, even if the content is not factually accurate. Scholars say these so-called “echo chambers” are leading to increased political polarization as well as misperceptions and disagreements on facts.

When a news outlet makes a claim that many like-minded people repeat over and over again, it can become exaggerated or distorted until most people assume an extreme version of the story is true, said Terri Towner, associate professor of political science at Oakland University.

“The overall effect of an echo chamber is to legitimize false claims in the public’s eyes through the sheer volume of reporting and media references, even if the majority of those reports acknowledge the factual inaccuracy of the original story,” she said.

Social media has caused a shift to a more disintermediated news selection process, which leads consumers to select information that meshes with their beliefs and to form echo chambers, or groups of like-minded individuals, according to a 2016 study in Scientific Reports.

“Their opinions are constantly echoed back to them,” Towner explained. “So, this reinforces their individual belief systems, making them stronger and stronger believers and polarizing us further. Never having your views challenged is terrible for democracy. This creates significant barriers to discourse and debate. If your views are never challenged, you’re never going to question what you know and what you believe.”

Even when people consume news from diverse sources and are exposed to evidence contrary to what they believe, they are seeing it through their own tinted lenses and will not accept information they do not support, according to Kelly Garrett, associate professor of communication at Ohio State University.

Garrett rejects the notion that people are confined to news bubbles and are never exposed to opposing viewpoints, but he agrees that echo chambers exist in the sense that people’s social engagement is limited to sharing and commenting on posts they agree with.

“The solution is less about exposure and more about figuring out how we help people interact with one other in meaningful ways,” he said, emphasizing the important role that individuals can play in promoting a more fact-based, civil discourse online.

When people see someone sharing a post with misinformation, they can help by sharing a respectful comment that explains the issue and provides a link to factual information. The more people who join the dialogue and point out inaccuracies, the better.

“This kind of conversation is more likely to produce belief change than simply putting a fact-checking article in front of someone,” Garrett said. “It’s the interpersonal contact and the repeated contact that tends to be more persuasive.”

Towner stresses the importance of being a savvy news consumer. She talks to students about how to maintain an eclectic news diet and spot whether news is credible or not.

Technology and media industries can help individuals in their efforts, Garrett said.

For example, Google and Facebook are working on making factual information on contentious topics more accessible.

But tech solutions still rely on people to use them, explained Towner, who said she is skeptical that most people would use tools to report fake news on social sites like Facebook.

“We do have to find ways to engage more respectfully, but it has to happen from both sides,” Garrett said. “In  other words, there are no easy answers here.”

Melissa Anders is a former metro Detroiter and freelance writer.