We All Get Sucked Into The Intellectual Echochamber

I checked by my Facebook newsfeed a few weeks ago, and, according to the posts I saw, there was a %100 guarantee that Bernie Sanders would (still) win the election. The creators of Pokemon Go were the near runners up.  When I looked over the shoulder of some older adults using Facebook, their feeds told a different story. (It wasn’t spying. I had to do it as research for this post.)

What does this tell us about the nature of reading in the 21st century?

Educators, and presumably our students, can fall into what I’ll call the Intellectual Echochamber. A few quick examples of this come to mind:

  • Our beliefs tailor our social media feeds. Our clicks, comments and likes dictate the content we see. This restricts the scope of differing perspectives we experience.
  • The “niche” Interest site provides media that fits our exact interests, reinforcing our identities. So, we can find the group of moms who make baby food from CSA vegetables.  
  • Even on Amazon, we see what customers who viewed our purchases also bought. This is saying, “people like you, who like this item, are also the type of people who like X, Y and Z.”

While adults love to criticize the current youth for the complete digital saturation of their lives, they may have an advantage. They have only ever experienced the Information Age, so they will have more practice and more time to develop social norms for digital communication and consumption by the time they are adults.

For current adults, the ones who are often busy saying that the current youth will have no communication skills and no sense of “truth” about information, this digital world has crept up on us as a gradual change from the world of old media.  We are also stuck with our heads down on our phones, but we might be more likely to pop up and say, “Wait, how did I get here?”

As an educator promoting literacy as well as objectivity through teaching journalism, it is important to cultivate a sense of awareness about the fragile nature of truth and information that pervades our reading today.

I think this process involves two steps:

  1. Recognizing the concept of the Intellectual Echochamber (awareness)
  2. Developing strategies for how to stay aware of it (and maybe even get out of it.)

Here’s a simple process I sometimes follow. I’m still thinking about how to adapt this into a lesson for my students this year:

  1. Scan my newsfeed to find a political post.  It can be a shared photo with caption (these are especially treacherous), a link to an article, or a rant.
  2. Read it/watch it/view it, and determine the thesis of the post and/or the article shared.
  3. Research the validity of the claim made in the post and/or the article.
    1. Snopes.com is one (imperfect) source for quick checks. I use it for political memes and those treacherous decontextualized photos.
    2. FactCheck.org is a non-profit that can also serve as a place to corroborate information.
  4. Now, I may come to a realization about my friend’s post. Are they sharing a bogus photo? Is their post filled with logical fallacies and factual inaccuracies. While I could reach out and share this information, I’ve found this process is more beneficial at keeping me aware of the generally poor quality of information shared on the Internet, as opposed to going on a mission to fact check all my friends.

I feel a responsibility to maintain a level of literacy and awareness as an educator and as an American. There’s also a responsibility to pass on these attributes to students in public schools. It’s important to stay aware of how literacy, democracy and the nature of information has fundamentally changed, and is never going back.

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