Listening to the Echo: The Effects of Algorithms


Zachary Bahar, Asst. News Editor

A story of lies.

It should come as  no surprise to most of us that Evanston, a city which prides itself on diversity and equity, is far from that which it claims to be. A history of redlining and racism runs deep through the veins of our city, and despite the advances we have made in equity and acceptance, so few in Evanston truly know and interact with people of other races due to the difficulties in overcoming the segregation built into its roots.

While this pseudo-diversity has been extensively talked about in our community, there is another, and in my opinion, even worse claim that many Evanstonians will make. A claim which seems to have persisted, despite its obvious flaws. A claim that allows those who make it to feel better about themselves afterwards. This claim being that they have “seen all perspectives.”

The argument of seeing all perspectives, one that many liberals in our community have adopted, is that before forming a belief, all sides must be taken into account.

While granting people the ability to see multiple perspectives of the complicated world that surrounds us may seem good, the Road to Hell is paved with good intentions.

The good intentions of attempting to hear all sides so quickly fall apart when people are confronted with those who disagree with them on a fundamental level. Liberals in particular shut down the conversation and close discussion between two humans. Rather than seeing people as people, they become viewed as the enemy.

This is what I have witnessed in Evanston, a community that prides itself on lies of diversity, both through race and beliefs. Take for example the recent conversations surrounding a Covington High School student’s use of a MAGA hat while at an Indigenous rights march. I saw that people naturally assumed more about the incident and the context behind it because someone wore that hat, regardless of the facts that later surface. These facts include the countless misunderstandings and assumptions made about that story, such as the presence of the Black Israelites and the libel that news organizations brought against the students.

Before I continue, it should be obvious that if you don’t feel safe communicating with someone, due to direct threats against you or your people, you shouldn’t. Your own safety always comes first. But in many situations this is not the case, as many individuals will simply refuse to communicate with those of opposing political leanings, for no reason other than these differences in opinions. As long as you are not directly threatened, you must have these discussions. Only through having these discussions is it possible to heal the divisions that have plagued our nation in the past decade. The political divide is worsening, we must try to heal it to keep the violence that so often comes with extremism from growing.

I am not a conservative. I consider myself to be a left-leaning centrist, but in a community such as ours, these views have often been interpreted as being far more conservative than they are. Often it seems that anyone who leans slightly right will be viewed as a far right extremist or labeled racist, despite the fact that assuming that anyone with conservative beliefs is no better than the dehumanization something that many feel is the greatest issue with certain populations on the right. These assumptions towards the right are in part based in the political history of Evanston.

Evanston is a community that has voted Democratic for the last 60 years and as such has homogenous composition of political beliefs, a topic addressed in both of the last mayoral elections and in a Huffpost article from the same time. When this is the case, it makes complete sense that those who “threaten” the peace of that community would be viewed as the enemy, just as I have seen.

This leads to the polarization, isolation and hatred that conservative beliefs have received in our community.

Among the numerous examples of this that I have seen, some of the ones that have stood out the most are statements from my peers such as “How could you stand to be around someone like that?” “We need an extreme leftist to win the next election” and “I don’t know how you could work with those people? They don’t view others as human!” (Note the contradictions in that statement, dehumanizing those who are being called out for dehumanization.)

Perhaps one of the most obvious examples of this sentiment in our community comes from the very publication in which I now write. In the Dec. 21 issue of The Evanstonian, there was a piece entitled “Right-wing politics are an ideological threat to a functioning America”.

This piece attacks right-wing extremism, directly comparing President Donald Trump to Hitler and Mussolini, calling Republicans akin to the Stormtroopers of Nazi Germany and saying that “civil discourse with these people places genocide on the same moral level as fighting it.”

There are countless issues in calling a large percentage of the nation Nazis, such as the denial of humanity that it enforces on conservatives which is one of the major threats that the author describes as being among the dangers of right-wing extremism. It addition, these statements grow the sentiment of hate. While fascism does slowly develop over time, when you attack those who support it you are justifying their need to act more and more extreme by proving that others are trying to undermine their safety and security, regardless if this is indeed the case.

However, the clearest sign of the times in which we live, is the previous quote. What the author is saying is that those who refuse to cooperate with others in our system, forcing it to stall, are helping our nation through their refusal to act. This mentality, the rejection of the opinions of the opposition and of reaching compromises that benefit the people, is what led us into the longest government shutdown in history, to the detriment of not only the political system but also the three million federal employees who went without pay for over a month.

Despite the many issues in the ignorance towards opposing beliefs that Evanstonians carries, I am able to see the counterpoint. It is reasonable to want to live in a world with people who agree with you; our biology sets this to be the ideal. It is safer. There is a reason that echo chambers have developed on the social internet and that people have flocked to them. They allow those trapped in them to feel at peace, to see the world that they want to see, one in which their beliefs become the only correct belief.

While some may claim that this is not the case, that they truly do grasp all perspectives, it has become an impossible task. The algorithms that run our online lives are designed to put us into these groups to maximize profit, groups which we then find ourselves trapped in once we enter the physical world.

Jaron Lanier, one of the creators of virtual reality and early developers of the internet, argues in his book Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts that algorithms designed to maximize time using the platform of social media guide users into boxes in which they see everything that makes them angry. This anger keeps people online.

The algorithms are designed to build this anger and create places in which only anger and hatred towards the opposition is heard, otherwise known as echo chambers. They build rage until all that remains is the extreme. Thus ensuring that users remain online, creating even more anger (all the while generating money for the social platform).

This is a reason that we have seen such an increase in extremist thought and action, both to the left and the right, across the world as the influence of invisible algorithms over our lives increases forcing all but the most extreme beliefs from our view. Did these beliefs exist beforehand? Absolutely, there has always been an extremist element of our world, but the ease with which these beliefs can spread and the encouragement of the algorithms to ensure that they do makes them much more potent and much more dangerous. Only by having centrist voices, who are more understanding of both sides of the spectrum, can the dangers associated with extremism be dampened through cries of moderation.

We have locked ourselves into these cells of anger, with Lanier writing that we spend upwards of 11 hours a day interacting with media that predisposes us to these beliefs, this anger at the opposition. How then would it be possible for these thoughts not to spill over into the real world, as we have seen both in Evanston and nationally?

Let’s return to the example of the government shutdown. Despite possessing the ability to help the citizens of our nation, the division between the parties, one fostered by the algorithms Lanier describes, made it so that the government was unable to come to an agreement for far too long.

Never before has such a division in our political system existed not because one party has taken to the extreme, but because both have.

The world is not a zero-sum game and politics is the art of compromises, of listening to others and viewing them as human, of realizing that we can disagree but still strive to better our world. However, in a world more controlled than ever by invisible algorithms that favor anger and hatred, we see the breakdown of civil discussion and the division and dehumanization of those who disagree with our own beliefs.

Once again I would like to state that if extremists are directly attacking you and your beliefs, it is more than fair to refuse dialogue with them. However, if this is not the case, there is no reason that you should shut down conversations based on how others might feel.

As Evanstonians, we have come far in the fight for equality for victims of racism, sexism, heteronormativity and other forms of bigotry; but those at the extreme, those whose voices are louder and carry farther, have failed to recognize that those with differing political beliefs are still human, still living on the same Earth with the same desires for belonging, happiness and love.

There may be no easy solution to this problem, nor can I propose one, but viewing those who disagree with you as people and understanding the humanity which binds us all is necessary to bend our society towards an equitable and moral future.

Others will argue that there is no point in fighting for that which is morally right when those we disagree with will only continue to dig into darkness. That going high while they continue to go low is an impossible goal. But if we don’t endeavor to try to create a more peaceful world, what hope does our species have? Humanity has reached great heights by working together, not by hiding in our caves protected by the fires we have lit for ourselves. We have ventured outwards to meet others, shared ideas and cultures, innovated and thrived.

Our humanness connects us all. By giving into extremism, we forget that fact. Only by actively fighting to protect the humanity of others, by truly listening to the thoughts and feelings of those who disagree with us, only by fighting against our own urge to silence and ignore them can we reach a state where it might be possible to heal the divisions in our society.

We cannot double down on hate, but instead surrender to the humanity which unites us.