One of the The main concerns when it comes to the harms of social media and political polarization in the United States 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 align with their worldview, they may become more entrenched in their beliefs, whether or not their beliefs reflect the real world. They can also become easier to manipulate and more extreme.
Interestingly, research largely shows that the vast majority of people do not inhabit perfectly sealed echo chambers. Only about 4 percent of people have been found to operate echo chambers online, and most people on Twitter, for example, don’t follow any political accounts. Essentially, most people don’t follow politics, and many of those who do get at least a little bit of information from different sides of the political spectrum. That being said, echo chambers and media bubbles are a problem because they can radicalize people, negatively affect the people who inhabit them, and distort the broader political landscape.
“The subset of the population that consumes hyperpartisan media and inhabits echo chambers on social platforms is very important,” says Magdalena Wojcieszak, a professor of communication at the University of California, Davis. “They are more politically interested, more participatory, more strongly partisan and more polarized. Because of all these things, they are more likely to participate in politics.”
Wojcieszak says that because these people are so politically involved, they have disproportionate influence on American politics. They are usually the loudest voices in the room. She says that politically active people like to have 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 align with them politically, and algorithms often feed them content they’re going to like. Ultimately, all of this can lead to people falling down rabbit holes and becoming more politically extremist.
“It makes you more extreme or polarized. Strengthen your attitudes. It also reinforces your sense of belonging to this group and reinforces your negativity and hostility towards other groups,” says Wojcieszak. “You think you are the legitimate one, the good one, the virtuous one. The others are evil.
People may start to believe that they are the only ones who know the facts and that the other party is illegitimate. (Perhaps you’ve seen this in a person who paid tens of billions of dollars for a social media company not long ago.) Wojcieszak says that the process of radicalization of people can start when they have some political opinions in common with those who are more extreme than they are. Having a few stances that align with these extreme online actors may be the trap that leads them down the rabbit hole.
“To get into that process of this individual psychological and algorithmic confirmation, you need to have some degree of susceptibility to some kind of left or right narratives,” says Wojcieszak. “If there are some social or political issues that you have views on, that can start the process.”