Everyone likes positive affirmation. It’s nice knowing that while the rest of the world has gone crazy, your friends have your back.
It feels even better when you have thousands of friends agreeing with everything you say. Frankly, that’s the power of social media, where positive affirmation is only a few clicks away.
Social media apps like Facebook and Twitter make it easy for people to surround themselves with like-minded individuals. If someone posts something you don’t like, just block or mute them. Before long, you have your own customized echo chamber.
Our echo chambers extend beyond just social media, however. We gravitate to news outlets that reflect our ideological predispositions. Rebel News for those on the right end of the spectrum and PressProgress for those on the left, for example.
The era of everyone watching the same evening newscast with a trusted news anchor is long gone. As consumers, we get to pick what we want to see.
In and of itself, choice isn’t a bad thing. We certainly don’t want to go back to when CBC was our only option.
However, a problem arises when we limit our media consumption to one side of the political spectrum. Not only does this create an echo chamber where we never hear dissenting views, it leads us to a distorted picture of reality.
It’s like visiting a fully-stocked buffet and loading your plate with nothing but bread. You aren’t going to have a very nutritious meal, no matter how much you like to eat bread.
Consider, for example, how several of the major networks covered the Jan. 6 riots in Washington, D.C.
Left-leaning networks provided extensive coverage on Donald Trump’s controversial remarks shortly before the riot and crafted a narrative that made all 75 million Trump voters look like gun-toting wingnuts.
Meanwhile, right-leaning networks glossed over Trump’s role in the riot and focused on the fact that Facebook and Twitter banned Trump from their platforms. They raised the ominous spectre of censorship and suggested that conservative viewpoints might soon be banned from the internet.
The stories on the networks with different ideological perspectives were so different that it was hard to believe they were covering the same events. And yet they were.
Even worse is when groups publish outright lies and fabrication. The QAnon conspiracy theory is a prime example.
QAnon adherents believe that Trump is engaged in a secret war against a deep state cabal of Satan-worshipping pedophiles, and that he’s still the legitimate president of the United States. Obviously, this is total nonsense.
Sadly, there’s no shortage of conspiracy theorist websites, videos and podcasts promoting this QAnon nonsense. People trapped in their own echo chamber become highly susceptible to conspiracy theories such as this one.
We can prevent this from happening by consulting a variety of sources and reading news stories that challenge our ideological predispositions. For teachers, this begins by modelling to students how to conduct proper research and showing them how to distinguish fact from fiction.
Our society will be a whole lot healthier if we listen to other people and interact with their ideas. We need to do more than just listen to our friends or news sources we agree with.
Michael Zwaagstra is a public high school teacher, a senior fellow with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy and author of A Sage on the Stage: Common Sense Reflections on Teaching and Learning.