For years in Chicago’s Schiller Park neighborhood, many residents believed that the water dispensed from a specific pump had rejuvenating qualities. Some were told for generations that the water could heal wounds and prevent sickness. It wasn’t until a Chicago Tribune investigation earlier this month that it was proven the water was exactly like the pump across the street and lacked its mythical qualities.
People will believe many things presented to them, regardless of if they’re true or not. This isn’t a new revelation by any means. Mythology and urban legends have given generations morals, a sense of safety and an idea of what world around them is comprised of.
This generation relies on the same stories, but in a different way. Few inventions have changed the way we view ourselves like the Internet. It has almost become cliche to mention how paradoxical the internet is, with the addictive nature that has been tied to the increased connection with the rest of humanity.
According to Pew Research, 43% of Americans get their news primarily from social media as of 2017. That number is only expected to grow in the next few years.
Social media, while constantly bombarded with criticism, can offer benefits to users. For example, they keep the world informed at a pace that is unrivaled throughout world history. Although bad actors are always present online, reputable news sources use social media as a way to pass on information in an efficient manner.
However, the way people get updates through social media is a perfect recipe for creating an echo chamber. This isn’t only relevant for news, but also how interests are sorted. Almost everything viewed online is tailored, either by the user themselves or by an algorithm.
The days of newspapers or magazines indiscriminately showcasing current events are declining, meaning that algorithms will continue to exploit patterns rather than encouraging exploration, as seen in services like Apple News. As seen in a 2019 study researching the effects of the Cambridge Analytica scandal by the University of Washington, this allows almost everything we see to be filtered first through the prism of self-choice. We can see what we want to see, whether that’s a feed customized with the opinions of one person or the recipes from one cooking page.
As such, this exacerbates divides and doesn’t allow a difference of opinion to be grown organically. If someone wants to experience a different perspective, they now have to make the active decision to seek it.
This set of circumstances is dangerous, as it allows lies to evolve rather easily and ignorance to become normalized. This trend largely affects millennials as well. According to Politico, only 37% of millennials can name one of their senators, and only 18% of 18-24 year olds can do the same. Additionally, according to the University of Pennsylvania, 35% of all Americans could not name all three branches of government.
It just goes to show how even when topics as world-shaping as a genocide is in the news, not everyone chooses to hear about it, even if it affects them directly.
This widespread ignorance on topics is a result of many Americans’ lack of diversification of the news source they choose. Some stick to one app, one channel or one news source, preventing them from seeing a different perspective on an issue and voluntarily enforcing agenda-setting. This pattern is beyond problematic in an increasingly divided nation.
As the Newseum in Washington D.C. closes and print newspapers go by the wayside, it’s clear that information is changing
The solution involves giving into the problem. Those who consume news should do so intelligently, and actively seek different perspectives. Users can avert algorithms, even if it means doing something as small as getting notifications from a reliable source you usually don’t read.
A well-read country will be a less divided one, where spin and propaganda is less likely to take shape. It will also mean a smarter and more empathetic citizenry that won’t be armed with falsehoods when choosing their views.
Our reliance on the Internet is by no means a bad thing, if used responsibly. The barriers that prevent people from being educated on topics that don’t come up in casual conversation can and should be broken, and that is now in the hands of the reader themselves.