One of When it comes to the dangers of social media and political polarization in the United States, the main issue is the fear of echo chambers or people operating in media bubbles. If people only hear opinions they already agree with or see stories that fit their worldview, they can become even more ingrained in their beliefs, whether or not their beliefs reflect the real world. They may also become easier to manipulate and become more extreme.
Interestingly, research largely shows that the vast majority of people do not live in perfectly sealed echo chambers. It has been found that only about 4 percent people work in online echo chambers, and Most people on Twitter, for example, do not follow any political accounts. In fact, most people don’t follow politics, and many of those who follow it get at least a little bit of information from different sides of the political spectrum. However, echo chambers and media bubbles are a problem because they maybe radicalize people, negatively affect the people who inhabit them, and distort the wider political landscape.
“The subset of the population that consumes hyperpartisan media and inhabits the echo chambers on social platforms is very important,” says Magdalena Wojciszak, professor of communication at the University of California, Davis. “They are more politically motivated, more active, more partisan and more polarized. Because of all this, they are more likely to take part in politics.”
Wojcishack says that because these people are so involved in politics, they have a disproportionate amount of influence in American politics. These are often the loudest voices in the room. She says people who are politically active love having their views confirmed, so they may end up following accounts that align with their views and end up in echo chambers. Social media makes it easy to find people who share their political views, and algorithms often provide them with content they’ll enjoy. All of this can eventually lead people to go down the rabbit hole and become more politically extremist.
“It makes you more extreme or polarized. It strengthens your attitude. It also reinforces your sense of belonging to that group and reinforces your negativity and hostility towards other groups,” says Wojciszak. “You think you are legitimate, good, virtuous. The rest are evil.”
People may begin to believe that they are the only ones with the facts and that the other side is illegitimate. (You may have seen this with a man who recently paid tens of billions of dollars for a social media company.) Wojciszak says that the process of radicalizing people can start with having only a few political views in common with those who are more extreme than they are. Having multiple positions that match up with these extreme actors online can be a trap that will drag them down the rabbit hole.
“In order to enter into this process of this individual psychological and algorithmic confirmation, you need to have some degree of receptivity to this or that narrative on the left or on the right,” Wojciszak says. “If there are any social or political issues that you have some views on, that can start the process.”