This work supports the claim that the presence of political echo chambers on social media is relatively limited, while still affirming their pervasive impact on American society due to their ability to spread misinformation. I will showcase this by examining the evolution of social media organizations as news resources, the existence of political echo chambers across various platforms, and the current state of social media regulation.
The rise of social media organizations like Twitter and Facebook has changed the way consumers get their news. Today, political commentators, news organizations, and politicians routinely utilize social media to break the fourth wall. These platforms have become an avenue for them to effectively communicate information to niche audiences and promote their interest. This has prompted many Americans to utilize social media sites as an easy, low-cost way to get their news. However, there is a general societal concern that individuals will restrict themselves to information that aligns with their pre-existing views. In other words, they could fall victim to political echo chambers which in turn will alienate them from the rest of society and further exacerbate the partisan divide within the United States.
The Pew Research center recently conducted a study that analyzed the increasing role of social media in delivering the news. They found that three out of ten adults regularly get their news from social media (Pew Research Center, 1). This affirms that social media has become a part of many American’s news diets. However, consumers still have a variety of opinions regarding the amount of control social media organizations have over their feeds, the content quality of posts, and the possible biases behind the information they are exposed to.
A majority of Americans think that social media companies have too much control over the content they are exposed to and that their control results in a worse mix of news (Pew Research Center, 1). They also found that Republicans are generally more skeptical of the information they encounter on social media compared to Democrats (Pew Research Center, 1). When asked to elaborate on this, many conservatives said that social media companies favor news organizations that are partisan in nature. These results reveal a substantial degree of skepticism from the American public over the information they see on social media. However, as stated above, this has not stopped 30% of Americans from using their social media accounts as a current event resource.
Social media’s evolution as a news resource poses a number of issues that are not present with more traditional news resources. Social media companies allows consumers to access more news content. Although this can be beneficial, it also has drawbacks. The wide variation in content means that consumers will not be exposed to the same set of facts as they would if they were to read the same local newspaper. Another issue is the absence of fact-checking on a lot of the content that circulates these media platforms. It is important to note that media spin does happen on more traditional news resources like Fox, CNN, The Wall Street Journal and The NY Times. However, instances of blatant falsehoods are hard to come by, which is the norm for a lot of user-generated content on social media.
However, the most important difference between traditional news resources and news on social media is the consumer experience. Consumers on social media forfeit their control over what information they encounter. They are hand-delivered their news content courtesy of each company’s algorithms that are designed to give consumers a specialized experience. These algorithms subtly takes away the element of choice that is more present in conventional news sources. The lack of consumer control on social media is widely regarded as the main reason for presence of political echo chambers.
There have been several empirical studies on the existence of political echo chambers across social media platforms. Jesse Shore investigated the partisan nature of content that consumers are exposed to on Twitter. She found that “On average, Twitter accounts post more centrist information than they receive in their own timelines, undercutting the prevailing narrative of the social media echo chamber” (Shore, 48). This so-called “narrative” refers to the idea that political echo chambers are consuming American’s social media accounts and pose a threat to our democracy. Jesse argues that a small number of actors have a disproportionate impact on the social media experience, which in turn has lead to an overemphasis on the presence of political echo chambers (48).
Maggie Koerth-Baker found support for this finding in her research that evaluated the reasons behind partisanship in the United States. She acknowledges that Facebook has become a hub for spreading misinformation, but points out that the number of people that censor themselves to “fake news” is relatively small (1). She says, “In a national sample of about 2,500 Americans, taken during the final weeks of the contentious 2016 presidential campaign, nearly 60 percent of all fake news visits came from the 10 percent of respondents with the most conservative media diets” (Baker, p.1). This begs the question do users care about political echo chambers on social media if they are only impacting a niche group of people?
Apparently, many Americans do. In response to the 2016 election, there was a public outcry for the FCC to regulate social media websites because of the targeted spread of misinformation. According to The Guardian, social media companies like Twitter and Facebook had record instances of “computational propaganda” (Howard and Kollanyi, 1). Interestingly, they found these occurrences happened in states that President Trump won by 2% (1). This reveals that individuals can focus on vulnerable communities and manipulate them by propagating falsehoods.
The FCC is a regulatory agency that monitors radio, television, and cable (FCC, 1). It is important to note that social media organizations are exempt from the FCC’s jurisdiction because of their unique distinction as technology companies. That being said, an entity can revoke their right to free speech if it is a hazard to the public interest. There are many questions surrounding the potential FCC regulation of different social media accounts. How would the FCC effectively prevent the existence of political echo chambers, the driving force behind the spread of viral misinformation, while not encroaching on American’s right to free speech?
The answer largely lies within the algorithms embedded in social media company’s codes. These algorithms prioritize posts based on their popularity and relevance to the specific user. The FCC would have to make companies like Facebook and Twitter change their algorithmic code that has allowed them to rise to prominence and generate billions of dollars. It’s not likely that they would willingly do this.
But what about enacting policy that would focus on the spread of viral misinformation? It is undeniable that “fake news” has a pervasive presence on social media. Scholars attribute this to the existence of political echo chambers. Petter Törnberg found that political echo chambers are the breeding ground of viral misinformation (2). He says, “an echo chamber has the same effect as a dry pile of tinder in the forest; it provides the fuel for an initial small flame, that can spread to larger sticks, branches, trees, to finally engulf the forest” (Törnberg, 2018).
Vivian Roese wrote a book on the role social media platforms play in the spread of “accidental media hype.” She defines says accidental media hype is “triggered by any kind of deep emotion, not just outrage and protest. Also, they are closely linked to the impact social media have on them, providing the breeding ground for these hypes, and reinforcing them” (Roese, 2018). Ultimately, their findings on political echo chambers and the spread of misinformation support that they are extremely intertwined which has prompted concern from members on both sides of the political aisle.
In October, Mark Zuckerberg testified before the House Financial Services Committee to discuss a new cryptocurrency called, “libra.” However, many members of Congress took the opportunity to grill him on the potential threat Facebook poses to America’s electoral democracy and national security. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, a U.S. representative from New York’s 14th congressional district, asked him about Facebook’s regulatory policy which currently allows politicians to pay Facebook to spread misinformation. She went on to ask whether Facebook would fact check political advertisements. He wasn’t able to give her a clear answer, which caused her to ask if she could hypothetically run ads that falsely claim Republican Congressmen support The Green New Deal.
After a testy exchange, Mark Zuckerberg eventually conceded that she would “probably” be able to do that. She followed up by asking, “Do you see a potential problem here with the complete lack of fact-checking of political advertisements.” He would not commit to taking down lies and said that it would largely depend on the context in which the political advertisement is posted. This goes to show that even small scale change would require government mandates because heads of social media organizations like Mark Zuckerberg do not want to compromise their profit-seeking motives.
In conclusion, political echo chambers have a presence on social media, but empirical evidence suggests that their existence is often overemphasized. That being said, it can’t be ignored that social media companies have designed their platforms to show content that appeals to user ideology. Further exacerbating this problem is the complete lack of fact-checking on user-generated content. This is problematic because of the pervasive spread of misinformation and the ability of outside actors to influence the material that shows up on user feeds as demonstrated by the 2016 presidential election. The debate over regulating these platforms will continue to rage on because of the conflict between the public interest and the First Amendment. Ultimately, political echo chambers and the spread of viral misinformation have become a part of the consumer experience on social media platforms and, as demonstrated by the 2016 election, could potentially pose a threat to national security and society at large.
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