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OPINION | DYLAN MCLEMORE: Burst the bubble

Echo chambers feed animosity by DYLAN MCLEMORE SPECIAL TO THE DEMOCRAT-GAZETTE | November 19, 2020 at 2:54 a.m.

When news broke of now-former Marshall police chief Lang Holland's calls for violence against Democrats, most of us had never heard of Parler, the online platform where he made the posts.

Social media apps, from startups to giants, not only facilitate such charged rhetoric, but encourage it by activating and appealing to our partisan identity. If we don't want to fall victim, it's important to understand how online radicalization works, and what we can do to combat it.

Parler presents itself as a free-speech alternative to Facebook and Twitter. As those companies attempted to rein in election disinformation, conservative accusations of political bias reached new heights. Parler welcomed the disaffected, doubling in size the week following Election Day.

While Parler may envision itself a true marketplace of ideas, its appeal among supporters of President Donald Trump seems to be not wide-ranging free speech, but an echo chamber where their expression can be met with agreement. When I signed up, 30 of the 35 recommended follows to kickstart my account were conservative politicians, personalities or organizations, and waiting in my inbox was a welcome message from Ron Paul.

Filter bubbles reinforce the social identities behind much of our political polarization. Insulated in-groups reinforce their own truths and virtues while creating bogeymen of perceived enemies. Surrounded by people and information that affirm our beliefs, we entrench, building a psychological immune system that attacks disconfirming facts.

If competition like an election triggers a fight response, the aftermath produces flight to safe spaces. Far-left Facebook pages never had more engagement than in the months following Trump's 2016 victory, according to misinformation researcher Craig Silverman. Today, Trump allies are bidding farewell to information sources that accept the legitimacy of an election called "the most secure in American history" by government security agency leadership appointed by the president.

So they leave Facebook for Parler. They even leave Fox News--the last remaining news outlet trusted by a majority of Republicans--for even further right Newsmax, which has yet to call the election.

Partisans aren't just encouraged by affirmations of their in-group; they are galvanized by demonizations of out-groups. Straw men and memes mocking the "other side" prevail across partisan filter bubbles, creating what Italian researchers called an "emotional contagion" of negativity and what a new study out of the University of Virginia deemed a "phenomenon of animosity."

The toxicity that leads some of us to unplug from social media is a feature, not a bug. And it might explain why Holland felt comfortable wishing "death to all Marxist Democrats" in a semi-public forum.

It takes real effort to avoid falling into a filter bubble, now more than ever.

Social media algorithms are built to create bubbles. Our user experiences are more enjoyable if we're fed content we like. That makes for a solid business plan, but social media has become the second-most popular way to get political news in the U.S., according to the Pew Research Center. As purveyors of information, playing to the dopamine fix is problematic.

To study this, I created two Twitter accounts in the weeks leading up to the election. One followed Trump, the other Joe Biden. From there, I let the algorithm build each account's social network. Within days, both were neck-deep in conspiracies, hoaxes, and countless schemes to collect like-minded followers.

It's not just the election; it's the pandemic. We're spending more time with our screens than ever, and less time with real people in our communities. That means more time with the fringes whose survival depends on loudly stoking conflict, and less time realizing the world outside our browser window bears little resemblance to the one social media would cultivate in our heads.

So what do we do?

Breathe. Put down the smartphone when you feel the algorithms feeding you animosity. Evaluate whether there really are enemies everywhere.

Be skeptical of people and platforms that only validate your point of view. Go to the sources of information that are most trusted by Democrats and Republicans alike--local news.

And look forward to being able to once again fully invest in the diverse real-life communities we call home.

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Dylan McLemore, Ph.D., is a media researcher studying what makes partisans tick. He is an assistant professor in the School of Communication at the University of Central Arkansas. For more, visit dylanmclemore.com.

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