Eliminating unpopular opinions from your news feed is bad for everyone

Published 9:25 am Wednesday, June 14, 2017

I grew up reading the Corpus Christi Caller-Times.

Besides the comics pages, my favorite part of the paper was the editorial section. Although I always had political point of view, I read everything. I remember reading Cal Thomas, Thomas Sowell and William Kristol alongside their liberal counterparts and while I rarely—if ever—agreed with their conclusions, I came to define my own politics as much through their philosophy as anyone else’s. I quickly realized that in order to have a point of view, one must be able to answer fairly and reasonably the objections of the other side. If one is going to exist in a community of ideas, then one must be able to defend one’s position.

Beyond my own political awakening, the editorial pages seemed like a good conversation between smart, witty friends. Who doesn’t have disagreements with friends? More to the point, why do two smart people have to disagree on complex political issues?

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I bring this up because these days it seems things are changing.

Since my days writing for my college paper, I have received a fair share of hate mail. I don’t mind it; at least they’re reading and, as I say, why should we all be in agreement? The fact that I have spent most of my professional life in Dixie has also meant I could expect a flurry of objections every time I’d come out in support of LGBTQ rights or against abortion restrictions. But, as I say, I’ve never minded the letters. I know my views may be in the minority but I think it’s good for the majority to know divergent views are out there. And who knows? Maybe someone will be a little happier knowing his or her viewpoint may not be popular but at least it’s not alone.

But now, in the past few weeks, I’ve had several readers call to cancel their subscriptions and every time they cancel it is because of the editorial page. On the one hand, I don’t think someone should pay for something they don’t value and so cancelling makes sense. On the other hand, it appears there is a growing number of people who do not value any opinion they do not agree with.

This should trouble everyone.

With the rise of the Internet and, in particular, social media, it’s become increasingly easy to remain in a philosophical echo chamber. Many sites used algorithms to reward readers with similar stories to the ones they have already “liked” previously, meaning it is easy to see one’s Facebook feed overloaded with one political ideology over the other.

It’s rewarding, too. It’s nice to think everyone agrees with you, even if it polarizes us as Americans. And, make no mistake, we are becoming more polarized. Last November, after the election, Gallup reported that 77 percent of Americans perceive the nation as divided on important values. It doesn’t matter whether one identified as independent, Democratic or Republican, the polling company’s data reflected the same thing: We perceive deep divisions in the country. Whether this is due to the social media echo chambers or whether the echo chambers represent a retreat from mainstream, traditional media I cannot say for sure, though the echo chambers seem like a bad idea either way you look at it.

I will venture to say that most people do not want to live in a divided country. I can’t imagine it feels good to believe that one’s way of life or values or traditions are under some sort of threat.

And yet, the more alone we find ourselves, the more we rely on our echo chambers. As a writer at Wired put it in an article about digital isolation last November, “The global village that was once the internet was has been replaced by digital islands of isolation that are drifting further apart each day.”

I like newspapers and I like them because they are inclusive spaces. It’s true, I get exasperated when I read a conservative opinions and I shake my head at how wrong they can sometimes be. Nevertheless, I read conservative columnists and, truth be told, I like knowing they’re there, just across the way.

I like reminding myself I don’t live on an island.