Updated: Dec 7, 2020
by Teresa Yanaros, September 11, 2020
It's not news to anyone that the internet has a life of its own and is not a perfect encapsulation of what is actually going on in the REAL world.
Questions to Ponder:
Just how affected are we by messages received subliminally through media outlets?
Can we escape the constant bombardment of certain messaging or at least its effects upon our psyche?
How can we recognize and interface with echo chambers online and retain our sovereignty in the process?
World (Wide Web) of Opportunity
The internet provides insurmountable opportunities for people with a vast array of life experiences and perspectives to connect and share ideas. We've watched the unfolding of a user-generated digital environment where individuals from all over the world can hit record on a camera and start video channels that look just like what we see on television. Anyone can register a domain name and start a blog site to publish original content. With the rise of the ability for media to go viral instantaneously, social media has changed the world.
Underlying Inherent Programming
This freedom we enjoy and experience through the advancement of technology calls for:
a deep level of responsibility in choosing the types of information with which we interface
a deep level of metacognition regarding the interpretation of the content we ingest
Media is like food for our minds. We are constantly receiving data into our minds whether we are conscious of it or not.
Communication experts have been researching this for a long time.
Cultivation theory, a theory of mass communication explored by academics since the 1960s, investigates the relationship between television exposure and beliefs, attitudes, and worldviews. After performing academic studies, researchers found that over extended time periods of exposure to certain television content, the consumer would grow to hold the conceptions of reality aligned with the values of the medium.
Implications of Social Media Popularity
It's clear. There is a historical basis informing the idea that media has inherent programming effects with exposure to content over time. We must confront the fact that people's beliefs are being deeply affected by media messages every single day.
YouTube, an online video-sharing platform, has amassed over 1 billion users and is ranked the most popular platform for sharing video content on the internet. Recent statistics presented by Omnicore Agency (2020) showed that over 1 billion hours of video content is consumed by users on YouTube every single day.
Because the age of the smartphone brought with it the age of instantaneous information, we need to talk about how programming manifests online.
Enter: The Echo Chamber
Cambridge Dictionary defines "echo chamber" as:
echo chamber: a situation in which people only hear opinions of one type, or opinions that are similar to their own.
Echo chambers are actually perpetuated on various social media platforms because our online behavior informs computer algorithms. Think about it this way. If you are on YouTube watching videos about cooking, you might notice that the next video suggested to you after watching the video is another video about cooking. This is because the YouTube algorithm wants to keep you on its platform so it will suggest videos to you that you might enjoy. If you are consistently watching, engaging with, and sharing the same kinds of videos across your social media platforms, this will reinforce the types of videos being suggested to you while spending time on the platform.
Echo chambers extend into all facets of media. On one hand, focused marketing or algorithmically-selected content makes things convenient for you. Algorithms will present content to you that will likely be useful and enjoyable. On the other hand, you will be drawn away from media that has nothing to do with your interests. This creates a bubble around you, and if you aren't careful, you can assume that the material you are coming in contact with is the only media that exists.
The cooking example is benign, of course. But not all media is benign. Echo chambers will have a different effect on the consumer depending on the type of content and length of exposure.
Next: People Reinforce Algorithmic Behavior
Have you ever witnessed a group of people online, maybe within a forum community or group on social media that share the same ideas over and over, seemingly caught in a loop of information? I'm sure you already have a handful of examples that come to mind as I mention this.
Let's talk about the organizational structure of this concept. In general, a person or group of people have a goal, cause, or motivation in launching an online presence. Under this mission, a movement has begun. Information is amalgamated within the topic and pushed out consistently over time to push the agenda, present it to people, and invite people to get involved themselves. This happens with all kinds of movements, whether political, religious or based on some ideology. Dissenting opinions, data, and information are discarded, ignored, and even attacked.
The 'Island of Thought'
I call these internet communities, "Islands of Thought." You can enter into a completely different universe online and see an entire group of people who believe one thing. They will usually even have their own lexicon or language that they use among themselves that you'll have to learn if you want to be a part of the group. They will have their own thought leaders, influencers, drama, and developing story. People jump on board to add to the user-generated media and then everyone inside the group shares it around to further reinforce the community's perspectives.
Islands of Thought are everywhere online! You can find them amongst gamers, cult followings for certain movie franchises, and all the way over to environmental causes and extremist political circles. These become reinforced over time and can grow into hundreds of thousands and even millions of people from across the world.
For my video series about the echo chamber I got caught up in
and then eventually recognized as such, check out my video:
We are constantly inundated with information online. And it's imperative to realize that these online subcultures are pervasive and can be intensely appealing. For younger online users, especially teenagers looking for a place where they belong, or even adults who have recently had some kind of destabilization of worldview, a risk is present. Islands of Thought can easily entice people into joining causes or communities that do not serve their best interests. Many of these groups appeal to emotion and can have people jumping on board to agree with a cause before they've applied an in-depth analysis of the data as a whole. Before you know it, they are looped into an online community hook line and sinker. Usually, at this point, they've connected deeply on a personal level with people inside the movement. This makes them less likely to apply intense scrutiny against the claims the people in the community make. People can be manipulated into wasting time, energy, money, and resources to push agendas that don't serve them at best and destroy them at worst.
When it comes down to it, humans have an intrinsic desire to belong and will do what they can to protect themselves against isolation and rejection. We desire community and to be around others who generally agree with us and make us feel as though we belong. Overall, it takes time to develop educated opinions after applying due diligence in research. Critical thinking, time, maturity, and experience all come into play while on the path of seeking the truth. Echo chambers or Islands of Thought aren't bad, it's just that we need to be aware that they exist, and understand how they work so we don't get caught up in m