Stop Designing Social Media as Echo Chambers

Alexandra Grochowski
4 min readJun 2, 2020

Echo Chamber: an environment in which the same opinions are repeatedly voiced and promoted, so that people are not exposed to opposing views.

Echo Chamber Ilustration by Trendjackers on Medium

Social media started as a way to spread ideas freely and without restriction. Just look at Twitter’s mission statement:

The mission we serve as Twitter, Inc. is to give everyone the power to create and share ideas and information instantly without barriers. Our business and revenue will always follow that mission in ways that improve — and do not detract from — a free and global conversation.

But if you have ever thought, “wow, it feels like people today are reading from two completely different playbooks”, you would be correct. Echo chambers in social media are not a new idea. However, the recent spread of biased and fake news into social media have undoubtedly exacberated the issue. We are glued to our phones for many hours a day, constantly being fed the same news from the same source. Everyone is convinced by their confirmation bias that the news they see on their phone… is the right news. This has furthered the already deepening political divide in the USA. So how did social media, which started with the noble cause of free flowing ideas, end up producing these closed loops? Let’s explore.

Curated Content

Social media is designed to curate content towards your preferences. Companies such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram will collect data on what you like, dislike, share, or comment on, and take that into account when recommending new content. Social media is designed this way in part, to create a better experience for the user. This seems pretty innocent because it shows you content you will probably like or need to see. Maybe you love fitness, and Twitter makes it easy to make sure you never run out of a workout idea.

But what happens when the content being curated to you becomes about political or social issues? Without even realizing it, your likes and dislikes are associating you with groups that share similar idealogies and viewpoints. And those groups also have the same one-sided content being curated to them, which they pass on to you. It creates a close-looped system where you are only seeing viewpoints you agree with. When you do see an opposing viewpoint, you are 10x more likely to be put off and press that unfollow button, making your chamber even more full-proof. After all, that guy who disagrees with you is probably just an idiot.

The truth is that curated content is also used to make money. Social media companies get paid by company affiliate advertising, which allows them to stay free for users to join. The more clicks (or views) an ad gets, the more Twitter gets paid. This means Twitter’s goal is no longer just to serve you, it is to serve the ad sponsors. After all, even Twitter needs to get paid. This revenue structure makes Twitter’s primary motivation to get as many people on their site as possible, and in front of those dang ads. Unleash the Fake News…

Fake News in Social Media

Social media has become an increasingly popular source of news. News began to spread at the speed of light, with no time or care for fact checking, resulting in the rise of “Fake News”. If somebody says it online, it must be real, right? By the time somebody did their due diligence and found out a source was fake or over-exagerated, hundreds of people were already convinced of the post’s integrity and had moved on to the next engaging headline. News became hyper-focused on sensationalism instead of on objectivity and evidence. Twitter wasn’t against this. The more clicks something got, the more ad revenue Twitter was making. Bold, provoking, (and biased) headlines are what got this job done. Doing real research or citing the facts was not a priority in creating engagement.

Combine the Two

Now let’s combine the spread of sensational news into our curated content designed social media chambers. We end up with siloed echo chambers spreading fake news at the speed of light to please these ad sponsors. So in my echo chamber I will always see the same perspective on the news that I have already decided I agree with. In your echo chamber, you may see a completely different news narrative you prefer. And we will see this every single day, for the many hours we are each glued to our phones. We will both be equally convinced that our side of the story is correct. Does this still fit Twitter’s mission statement? I would argue it doesn’t: this conversation is no longer free, nor global. It is very much restrained as people are no longer able to have logical discussions on issues. Evidence becomes purely anecdotal, looking like: “But I saw this on Twitter!”, and “Really? I saw the opposite!”. Both parties just end up confused and quick to end the conversation.

The mission we serve as Twitter, Inc. is to give everyone the power to create and share ideas and information instantly without barriers. Our business and revenue will always follow that mission in ways that improve — and do not detract from — a free and global conversation.

Where To Go From Here

Echo chambers in social media raise many ethical concerns. But who’s responsibility is it to prevent these echo chambers? Should the product designer be wary of designing an echo chamber system? Should the government step in with legislation? Or should we as consumers take the first step towards demanding products that don’t filter out other viewpoints? Would you be willing to pay for a social media platform so that it could serve you instead of its ad sponsors? Personally, I would. Let’s have a discussion in the comments.

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