Digital Dissonance, Or: The Growth of Personalized Digital Bubbles

Let me start by saying that this post will contain some references to the Presidential election. This won’t be a post about my political opinions, nor how much I hate Trump/Hillary, nor will it contain any of the political bias that had seemingly soaked through every article you’ve read for the past 9 months. This post will be about the surprise I felt after the election, when Donald Trump defied the mainstream messaging, polls, and expectations that I (and many others) had in the weeks and months leading up to November 8th. If you’ve had enough of politics and just want to keep your head down for the next 4 years, feel free to move on - though if you do, you’re likely one of the people I’m going to be talking about in this post.


Now that some people have certainly moved on, let’s state the obvious: people are living in bubbles, and I am no exception. I’m sure you’ve heard people talking about the “bubble” already, and if not, let me explain it to you. Before election day, people would talk to me about Trump, and I would say, “there’s no way he can win.” I would touch upon the various things he’s said that have rocked the news cycle, set fire to social media feeds, and become water-cooler conversations where people would shake their head in disbelief that a Presidential candidate would say or do such ridiculous things. All of the news organizations gave Hillary Clinton upwards of a 65% chance of winning the election. It was a shoo-in, they said. Trump was finished. Crown Queen Hillary already, the election is over. All of my friends agreed, both online and off. So did all of the pages I followed on Facebook, as well as all of the people I followed on Twitter.


This was slightly over half the country on election night.

This was slightly over half the country on election night.

At about 11pm on Tuesday, November 8th, the bubble burst. People were in disbelief. How could Trump have won? How could every one of my content sources and connections be wrong? All the polls said he was going to lose. All the mainstream news media said he was going to lose. All of my Facebook friends said he was going to lose. The only people who thought he was going to win were those nutjobs who follow right-wing conspiracy pages on Facebook, and I don’t have to listen to them, right?


That, my friends, is what the bubble is. We all have one. It’s the world we perceive through the information and content we consume, and today, it’s easier than ever to personalize this bubble. When that happens, the bubble becomes more closed off from the world, and stronger. Let me explain.


We live in an increasingly digital world, one where social media is dominant. People have digital lives, digital friends they’ve never met, and consume media/information through the digital world far more than ever before. In fact, a majority of U.S. adults - 62% - say that they get their news through social media. The problem with this is that social media gives all of us an enormous amount of customization and content curation for which news sources we consume.


This simple and effective means of content curation means that you’ll only end up getting news from sources you happened to “like” or “follow” on social media. And, if you aren’t familiar with cognitive dissonance as a communication theory, it basically states that when you encounter beliefs, ideals, or values that are inconsistent with your own, it can create psychological discomfort or stress. In order to avoid that discomfort or stress, you will take actions to reduce those feelings. In a digital world, those actions can be as simple as closing a tab or scrolling past an article you don’t agree with, allowing you to fall back into the cozy, consistent warmth of your bubble.


Let me ask you: when you see articles or comments that attack your beliefs or point of view (as were so commonly seen in the run-up to the election), do you stick around with an open mind to read it? Do you think, “wow, that’s a valuable opposing viewpoint”? Or do you skim through the comments left by those “idiots,” chuckle to yourself, and self-assuredly scroll away, knowing that you’re right and they’re wrong? I’m sure I know which is true.


Having such simple and powerful control over the sources you choose to “like” and “follow” on Facebook means that the ones you consume are likely going to wind up being those that represent your interests, ideals, beliefs, etc. Your entire social network, regardless of platform, is likely to slowly build itself into an belief-consistent bubble where the things you follow are curated to match your life. It makes sense, doesn’t it? If I’m a liberal democrat, I’m not going to follow pages that post right-wing conservative articles, comments, or propaganda. The reverse is true as well - right-wing conservatives aren’t going to follow or repost HuffPost articles or Occupy Democrats Facebook posts. Going even further, the people you’re friends with online are more likely to be people who share your same beliefs. Not all of them, to be sure, but I would guess that the slight majority of your online friends or the people you interact with digitally are people who agree with your beliefs. People are simply more attracted to other like-minded individuals. This leads to your friends reposting content that fits their beliefs, which is then reposted by another friend who shares that belief, possibly even finding itself being reposted by you.


Part of that, I think, has to do with where you’re raised and the kind of culture you grew up in. A 26 year old who grew up in Louisiana is more likely to be a conservative, have conservative friends, and follow conservative pages than a 26 year old who grew up in Vermont. So, to them, the large majority and extent of their social world is likely to be curated and populated with a certain bias that’s consistent with their beliefs. Of course, there are always outliers, like the handful of Republican friends I have who grew up in a liberal town but within a conservative family. So this isn’t a blanket statement to be sure, but an estimated guess about what is happening for a lot of people.


On top of all of this, social media and crowd-sourced news sharing platforms also means that things like fake news can run rampant without any sort of filter which would traditionally be used by “professional” news media in an attempt to maintain a level veracity. It’s easier than ever to write a compelling article about, for example, Hillary Clinton’s shady past, rife with lies and slander, and see it generate millions of shares on social media without consequence. Fake content that serves to reinforce beliefs and polarize people is quickly absorbed into the walls of their bubbles in disguise, and many people are none the wiser - in fact, they might not even care. But fake news on social media is a whole other can of worms, and I won’t dive into it now.


So that’s what we call the bubble. And, as we descend into a more digital world, it’s likely that these bubbles will become more isolated, thicker, and potentially cause more damage when they inevitably burst.

SNL did a great skit that pokes fun at a lot of bubble-dwellers.


So what can we do about this? How do we solve the problem of people living in their increasingly personalized, digital bubbles? That’s a great question, and a more difficult one to solve.


The answer, I think, lies in finding a way to expose people to opposing viewpoints, to be more open-minded, to get them to see that there are views and beliefs that exist outside of their digital bubble, and that - believe it or not - those views, values, and ideals are just as legitimate as their own.


But how do you get people to willingly engage or, at least, become exposed to those views when the user has a massive amount of control over the content they see? How do you willingly get your bubble-dwelling friends to stick their heads out and look around with an open mind? To be honest, I don’t quite know. It’s something that I’ve been thinking about a lot, and haven’t quite had an answer to yet. In the past, a cure for close-mindedness was travel. Try to get the person to leave their hometown and go see the world. That’s still true, except today it’s more than that. The amount of content we consume regularly through social media means that people are only reinforcing their beliefs at an increasing rate instead of challenging them. It’s easy to just say “whatever” and continue on in your comfy little bubble.


Get out of your bubble. Like this handsome fellow.

Get out of your bubble. Like this handsome fellow.

Maybe the first step towards change is just realizing that you’re living in a bubble in the first place. Whether or not you start to venture outside of it is up to you. At the very least, take a few minutes for self analysis and see if anything I’ve written about applies to you. Are you a bubble-dweller? If so, do you even care? I know it’s cozy in there, all consistent and warm. But look what at happened after this election. To my Hillary-supporting friends, if you were shocked by the results like I was, ask yourself if that was just the bubble popping for the first time in a while. For my Trump-supporting friends, don’t get cocky - I’m sure you’re living in a bubble too, only yours didn’t happen to pop on election night.


For all our sakes, I hope that if you do find yourself realizing that you’re living in a bubble, you take it upon yourself to expand your content consumption beyond the cozy boundaries you've created. Follow an opposing page on Facebook just to see what they’re talking about. Read comments left by people with opposing views with an open mind and not a dismissive, condescending one. Take time to explore the immense world of the internet and all of the viewpoints that exist there instead of hiding in your personalized corner. The world will be better for it, I promise you. Or, at the very least, the next time your bubble pops, you'll have a better understanding as to why.


Until next time,

- Jake