Looking back over 2017, it’s hard not to see a year dominated by divisive opinions, downright insults, and the media echo chamber.
And while divisiveness, party loyalty, and a fair amount of insults are nothing new, that echo chamber deserves some scrutiny.
Otherwise, we are doomed to carry the mistakes of 2017 with us into 2018 without taking any of its lessons along for the trip.
Media consumption in a bubble and anger on demand…
Whether we like it or not, people consume more media than ever before. That’s not necessarily a bad thing.
The real trouble begins with the ways in which people now consume media. This is where 2017 starts to really set itself apart from years past.
Individuals are shutting out information they don’t agree with at an alarming rate. This trend was first noticed in the early months of 2017 and began with social media. People had inadvertently cordoned themselves off and segregated their social media feeds into two distinct categories. Those that disagreed with their worldviews and those that reinforced what they believed.
Individuals preferred the latter and began to curate their feeds in a way that reinforced their preconceived notions.
Most people did this unconsciously.
Social media is often used as an escape tool. As the world around people filled with information that contradicted their beliefs, their social media feeds became a place to escape that contradictory information.
They started to consume social media in a self-imposed bubble.
Then this spread beyond just social media platforms.
Soon individuals only began listening to specific news networks in a way that mirrored their social media consumption.
What started as confirmation bias on social media grew into exclusively consuming media in a bubble.
Capitalizing on this, media outlets fed into that bubble by producing stories that easily fit into a particular and agreeable narrative.
And when stories don’t fit into that mold, they go mostly unreported.
For evidence of this, we need to look no further than Fox News’ coverage, or lack thereof, for the indictment of Michael Flynn Sr. Though it is worth noting that this very coverage also fits into the echo-paradigm. Think Progress reinforces the bias of their own readers against Fox News.
This isn’t something only one news agency or one “side” of the political spectrum does. In fact, the problem exists because people are grouped under broad political labels that serve a “package” of beliefs.
And the media as a whole is guilty of reporting through a lens.
And as media outlets push stories through with an obvious slant they isolate individuals more and more from opposing views. To take the example of Fox News and Think Progress, neither one offers an accurate representation of “the other side.” So even if a Fox reader wanted to see an opposing view, all they would get on Think Progress is a caricature and vice versa.
This is how media echo chambers, news bubbles, and biases are reinforced.
And with each “side” pushing their own forced perspective, repetition turns into “truth.” It seems there is no point in hearing out the other side, because their coverage lacks substance, and promotes a biased narrative.
This lead to an us vs. them way of reporting current events. They further alienated individuals from contradictory information by vilifying and discrediting opposing sources.
From there it was no longer a self imposed segregation of information, it had become something curated and controlled as a means of isolating individuals into particular groups, us and them.
Bursting the bubble while we head into the new year…
The media consumption bubble has become common knowledge to those that pay attention to the devil in the details of the media industry.
But for a number of people still in the bubble, its detrimental effects are not recognized.
When individuals only receive information from one source they are more susceptible to being lied to and manipulated.
This type of media consumption influences how people engage with each other. If individuals are used to disregarding things they don’t agree with, civil discourse and debate become impossible.
How can a people actively discuss anything if one side refuses to acknowledge the other side’s perspective? In short, they can’t. What transpires is the events we saw throughout 2017, shouting matches without actual and meaningful discourse.
A quick look on social media brings you face to face with comments filled with baseless accusations, insults, and even threats.
That lack of proper discourse worked its way outside of the digital realm.
Whether it’s the debacle that erupted at UConn late November or the violence that left Berkeley feeling less like a university and more like an arena, the ability to engage in civil discourse has broken down.
2017 was a year of little substantive debate, yet full of fighting from both sides.
So what can be done as we welcome 2018 and try to carry with us the lessons from the past year?
It always comes back to individual action. You can’t change others, but you can change yourself.
And while it is frustrating to watch others descend into idiotic feuds, it is important to fight the urge to scream back or engage at such a low level.
Be the bigger person by insisting on civil public discourse.
Free and open public debate challenges the bubble’s structure. It brings colliding ideas and beliefs head on in a way that leaves each side walking away with more knowledge.
And though 2017 was not the year for public discussion, 2018 has to be the year that we once again welcome public debate back into the fabric of society.
So how do we do this in a way that doesn’t echo the same mistakes of 2017?
On a personal level, each one of us can take a moment to look at the way in which we engage with our fellow citizens. When faced with an opposing view do we actively try to understand the other person’s perspective or do we simply wait for our turn to shut down their beliefs?
It’s important to remember that substantive debate requires two things. One, it requires that we are open and understanding to the other side’s perspective, regardless of personal beliefs. Two, we must remain civil.
Without those two aspects, the shouting matches of 2017 will follow us into the new year.
So, with that in mind, it is on us to actively seek out opposing views and invite civil discourse. That said, it is also on us to remain civil throughout that discourse. If the person with an opposite perspective is not civil, do not engage.
We have to leave behind the “they started it” and “they do it so we do it” ways of debate that prevent any meaningful discussion from taking place.
A good way to start is repeating back their point in a way that summarizes it, to be sure you understand, and let them know you listened.
Everybody has a reason for their views. So if we can take a moment to gather ours and articulate them in a civil way while understanding the other side, we can begin to rebuild the bridge between us and them.
Reducing “the other” to a caricature or Disney villain is bound to grow the schism.