Election Season 2020: Escaping the Echo Chamber | UMC YoungPeople
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October 2020

Election Season 2020: Escaping the Echo Chamber

By Chris Wilterdink

The struggle is real: the U.S. election this year includes voting for president, the Senate, the House of Representatives, plus every kind of local election that we can imagine. I wanted to write several posts about the election and perhaps find a different way to talk about elections than we may experience in many other parts of life or ministry.

One of the functions that algorithms serve within many social media platforms is to keep a user engaged. Insta, Snap, TikTok; mainstays like Facebook, Pinterest, Google, and YouTube; as well as up-and-coming apps and platforms rely on user engagement, so designers plan and create their interface and deliver information to keep people using the app or platform as long as possible. An interesting side-effect of this is “suggestions” that the system will offer you based on your past browsing or interaction history. Let’s say I wanted to make a cake from scratch, so I start looking and liking and saving a bunch of posts and videos about cakes. The algorithm picks up my activity and starts suggesting accounts, videos, and so on of cakes and cake-makers to me. Then if I take those suggestions, I’m eventually going to end up down a labyrinth of ultra-realistic cakes decorated to make me question reality, as celebrated with the “Am I Cake?” meme.

Now, that process with cake may be innocent and humorous, but the effect when dealing with more consequential topics can intensify behaviors and polarize beliefs. These algorithms use our own preferences and biases to create echo chambers of sorts, spaces where we get exposed to information (whether it is true or not) that reinforces our current beliefs and preferences. This phenomenon and intentional design is explored in the recent Netflix production, “The Social Dilemma” (totally worth the watch!). Political parties and candidates are invading apps and platforms with advertising and messaging in ways that are not as strongly regulated as ads on television, radio, or print.

Are there ways to escape the echo chambers and mitigate some of the negative effects of social media on teens (including but not limited to increases in depression, self-harm, suicide attempts, and radicalization), particularly during this election season?

1. Consider listening to the “Faith in an Anxious World” podcast and perhaps use the four-part curriculum as material for your youth and their families. This resource does an excellent job of raising awareness about anxiety and depression and some of the causes of those feelings. It empowers youth leaders and parents with language and tools to respond to hurting teens from a lens of holistic and faithful discipleship.

2. Create a space specifically designed for young people to share articles, stories, or posts that they wonder about. Create a safe and brave space for questions to be asked and for you and your volunteer time to provide a critical eye and spiritually mature perspectives. Encourage questions and interactions with stories that seem to no make sense or seem made to persuade. Remember, young people are not lacking in information being force-fed their way; they are lacking mature filters and lenses through which to understand the information they are being given. Serve in the mold of a biblical mentor who can bring life experience and wisdom to contradictory information that could cause confusion to a teen. Provide balanced and reasonable feedback that encourages their questions and helps them to determine the perspective and the veracity (how true is this?) of the posts that they bring in. To create healthy boundaries when going through articles and the commentary that will follow, set some basic (Christian, respectful, kind, practical, stay on topic, avoid personal attacks, etc.) guidelines that all agree to follow when sharing articles and when commenting on the articles of others. This will allow people to lovingly disagree. One way to do create these guidelines is to have your group make a behavior covenant together, where everyone agrees what is acceptable behavior and agrees to adhere to it while the group meets. Unsure how to organize this kind of conversation or behavior covenant in a fair and balanced way? Check out our “How to Have a Courageous Conversation” booklet, this article on Holding a Courageous Conversation Online, or even join our Courageous Conversation Course that goes through models and behavior for engaging in these kinds of conversations.

3. Consider creating smaller groups or accountability partnerships between church staff, your volunteer team, parents, and even youth with one another. Perhaps once every two weeks (or more frequently depending on the needs of your ministry), have partners or smaller groups connect with one another to talk, share, and process posts that challenged them in the last week or posts that they strongly identified with or negatively reacted to. Within these groups or partnerships, encourage one another to find posts and stories that offer different points of view. The “Flip Side” might make for an interesting tool. It takes one story from politics that day, then provides a variety of links to responses from more conservative and more progressive sources. Offer one another grace as you work together to understand the issues and what faithful responses could look like.

Click here to read Election Season 2020: Representation Lag

Click here to read Election Season 2020: The Foundations of Our Ideologies

    Chris serves as Director of Young People’s Ministries for Discipleship Ministries of the United Methodist Church. Chris has a BA in English Education, and an MS in Project Management, and over 15 years of local-church youth ministry experience. He is passionate about leadership and faith development in young people and helping ministry leaders understand their value in the lives of young people. A Stephen Minister, Chris is a native of Colorado living in Franklin, TN with his wife Emily, 2 children, and sausage-shaped beagle.