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Why Did Trump Win? The 'Echo Chamber' Effect

In the wake of Donald Trump's victory in the US Presidential Election, everybody is now broadly asking two difficult questions: how did this happen, and what comes next? As we plunge further into punditry and speculation, it's increasingly apparent that no single answer to either question is enough. Arguably, trends are identifiable; but it would still be erring to believe that all Trump supporters were thinking alike on Tuesday. Many things contributed to the result. However, it is necessary to highlight one element which, although perhaps not the biggest, is nevertheless presently thought to be one big factor in both the result itself and our present  inability to comprehend it: the Facebook 'echo chamber' effect

Nine months ago, we published an article regarding the effect of this phenomenon upon our consumption of political viewpoints. The idea is simple: on social media, we're probably only seeing things we already agree with. The algorithm used by Facebook to construct our news feeds works in the same way as search engine cookies: when Google, for example, notices our regular searches for 'shoes', it begins presenting us with Converse adverts. In Twitter's case, the problem is less an algorithm and more an active tendency. If we only follow conservative people, we'll only encounter conservative views. Liberal views won't appear in our social media world, and we may not see their side of the fence at all online. 

In short: social media provides an unprecedented means by which we can insulate ourselves from things we do not like, agree with or care about. But we've know this for a while. The difference now is the new relevance of this point in light of Trumps' election win this week and our subsequent stunned emojis.

A popular sentiment this week
This could either be good or bad. Although many decry the apparently millennial trend of insulating one's self from hardened, enlightened debate, others feel it serves a valuable social function in the construction of safe spaces. Instead of wading into an 'ought' debate, let's keep on-track and consider this issue as commentators trying to answer the two questions we opened with: how did this happen, and what comes next?

Firstly, the echo chamber is a good, clear factor we can accommodate into our (hopefully much larger) answer to the first. One of its main effects is that we are all far less capable of understanding how people can think differently to us. It's not the only cause of this outcome. But, given the way social media works, it does seem to proliferate the insular tendency; which also explains, in part, why may of us remain so shocked. From our online vantage-points, everybody seemed to be saying the same thing: 'vote Hillary,' or 'vote Donald,' depending which social circle you're a part of. The outcome of all this: when we finally discover that America really is this deeply polarised, and indeed that a culture once thought marginal is actually far more mainstream than once thought, the news comes as shocking. 

Second, however, and perhaps more importantly, it's potentially something to bear in mind when answering the second question we asked: where do we go from here? Simply put, if you think, as the echo chamber theory suggests, that social media has served to exacerbate insularity, dogmatism and so forth; and you agree that such things did play a role in facilitating Donald Trump's victory; and if, perhaps bearing the latter in mind, you think that such things are, on balance, a negative, then you will probably also feel that we should change the way we use social media

There are lots of 'ifs' in the above sentence. Naturally, these suppositions are somewhat controversial in the present climate, unavoidably colliding as they do with alternative viewpoints. However, if they do contribute to satisfying answers to the two big questions we've been asking of late, then Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms are evidently not only the fields upon which it's appropriate to take our next steps, but are also those upon which it is easiest to do so. In the past minute, I've followed FOX News on Twitter and requested to join a Facebook group called 'Pro Trump' (but they haven't let me in yet*). Moreover, even if we think we already understand them, it's really easy to just ask online friends (or real ones!) whose political views differ from ours whether they'd mind explaining why they hold the views they hold (private messages are probably best). That's what dialogue would look like - but it would also require outreach, patience and pride-swallowing. 

Things, even on a good day, don't really make sense; so we really like ideas which provide coherence. However, if we want to understand how Donald Trump was able to win the Presidency, and how we can move forwards after such a big event, understanding the 'echo chamber' effect is not only relevant to the first question, but may, for some, prompt the casting of nets into the big, blue ocean, rather than keeping them in shallower rock pools.

(*Edit: I was allowed to join the group within an hour of my initial request.)

James has a Bachelor’s degree in History and wrote his dissertation on beef and protest. His heroes list ranges from Adele to Noam Chomsky: inspirations he’ll be invoking next year when he begins a Master’s degree in London. Follow him @Songbird_James

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Why Did Trump Win? The 'Echo Chamber' Effect Reviewed by Unknown on Monday, November 14, 2016 Rating: 5
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