A Cognitive Dissonance perspective on social media echo chambers

Published: 2023/07/05 Number of words: 1420

For the average person on the internet, experiences of social media are akin to “echo chambers” that reinforce our existing beliefs. Our mind strives to maintain harmony between what we know and what we experience online, resulting in us gaining followers and subscribing to user content because we are able to relate to it. This mutual engagement centred around existing values, beliefs and knowledge, thus creates and maintain these so-called “echo chambers“.

The increasing filtering and handling of information through the lens of inflexible belief systems make us more isolated and incapable of dealing with information that contradicts our existing knowledge (Landau et al., 2010). We become indifferent, apathetic and detached from each other (Breitve et al., 2018). Evidence of this can be found in the ever-increasing political polarisation in the West. However, if we do happen upon content on social media that contradicts our existing values, beliefs, and knowledge, we often become triggered and experience acute emotional responses. What is problematic here is that these acute emotional responses are quite often disproportionate to the nature of the disagreement. The validity, accuracy and fairness of information we find triggering is, however, irrelevant.

One can argue that triggered responses frequently observed in social media spaces where politicised issues are discussed is the result of carefully crafted political rhetoric specifically designed to polarise groups (Rao, 2018). Conversely, one can argue that if people understood their lived experiences and the lived experiences of others better, that intentionally polarising political rhetoric would have little effect. Triggers can be good or bad; this is not the issue here. However, understanding how we acutely react to contradictory information enables us to have constructive conversations from which we can grow.

Consider the following example (Hui, 2017): A crowd gathered to protest the White Nationalist Richard Spencer delivering a speech at the University of Florida on Thursday. Rick Scott, in an executive order, warned that in Alachua County, where the university is located, “a threat or potential emergency is imminent“, noting that a speech by Spencer could spark protests and violence. The event was his first public address on a college campus since he led hundreds of torchbearers of white supremacists, white nationalists and others in August at a far-right rally at the University of Virginia, at the weekend of violent protests in Charlottesville. Spencer’s speech attracted both supporters and protesters. Among the supporters was white supremacist Randy Furniss and among the protestors was racism activist Aaron Courtney. In a video recording of the crowd, one can see an unidentified person punch Furniss in the face before disappearing into the crowd. Amazingly, as blood was running down Furniss’ face, Courtney approached him, embraced him and asked him, “why don’t you like me?“. This single act of kindness deescalated the violence and started a conversation.

Many people might agree that Aaron Courtney would have been justified in being angry and provoked by Furnish’s vile racism. Many people might agree that Randy Furniss did not deserve an act of kindness. However, regardless of who was right or wrong, Courtney’s acknowledgement that his lived experiences are different from the lived experiences and a willingness to engage Furniss on their differences – in a manner that does not perpetuate further violence – demonstrates the importance of an awareness of how our minds seek to establish harmony between what we believe and what we experience (Rescher, 2005).

Telling someone that they are wrong will not change anything because it does not address one’s need for harmony between experience and knowledge. The lack of harmony between our experiences is a cause of mental stress (Brighton & Gigerenzer, 2008). This is particularly important in social media, where we do not interact with people but rather their content. For the online community to engage constructively, it is essential that we understand how we become triggered and how we might be triggering others. If we want to understand, reach and connect with people, we need to think deeper than mere surface reactions.

Being triggered by social media content is a normal reaction to what is called cognitive dissonance. Discomfort arising from mental stress motivates us to resolve dissonances. The easiest way to reduce psychological stress and cognitive dissonances is to reject the source of the dissonances that is generating a triggering response (McGrath, 2017). However, most of us do not have the necessary reflexivity skills to participate in this process. Mature, progressive individuals like Aaron Courtney look inward and considers the source of the trigger and the possibility that our beliefs might need to change.

Triggering information is not hard to find in the comments sections of polarised content. Triggered reactions become contagious and can be seen to spread from all manner of insults, slander, and personal attacks. This is obvious but problematic because it increases the dynamic of collective rejection of experience and not only serves to uphold but even reinforces existing beliefs, thereby further reducing the likelihood of constructive engagement. The triggered reaction becomes part of our own cognition – the same function of the mind that strives to maintain harmony. Thus, when we know that we have experienced and applied a newly triggered reaction, we are motivated to look for experiences that confirm our triggered reaction (Harmon-Jones, 2019).

Decades of research have shown how cognitive dissonance and its evolutionary functions evolved in humans to survive as hyper-social creatures (Mercier & Sperber, 2017). The Predictive Dissonance Model suggests that cognitive dissonance is related to the predictive function of cognition associated with survival. With an endless influx of sensory stimuli, the brain tries to predict patterns and themes from the incoming information in order to avoid an overload of stimuli. A crucial facet of this filtering, categorisation and interpretation of stimuli is to minimise errors in prediction (Kaaronen, 2018). In this context, cognitive dissonance is technically a prediction error and would need to be resolved in order for our cognitive functioning to continue to function optimally. Ideally, this “prediction error” would be resolved through introspection and considering what existing belief underlies the “error“. If we are able to examine our own beliefs constructively, we might be in a position to reevaluate unrealistic worldviews, as opposed to rejecting the information that is causing the “prediction error“.

Cognitive dissonance, or being triggered, is simply part of how our minds work. Although immediately uncomfortable, this discomfort offers us an opportunity to learn and develop our understanding of the world. In order to learn from our triggers, we must make a concerted effort not to stop ourselves from constructively engaging with disagreeing views, ideas and beliefs just because we think they are right or wrong. We need to manage our triggered reactions by developing a better awareness of the commonly accepted beliefs that we take for granted. Openness to new perspectives on the world and willingness to exercise a healthy critique of our own thinking will prevent us from falling victim to instincts and engaging in destructive online discourse.


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