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As you dig in and do your research to prepare to cast your ballot, you'll also likely find yourself wanting to join the conversation in other ways. In this episode we're talking about productive ways to engage and join the conversation.

Do digital echo chambers exist?
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MediaWise is a nonprofit, nonpartisan project of the Poynter Institute and supported by Facebook. Complexly is an MVP partner, as are Campus Vote Project and Students Learn, Students Vote.
When you’re really passionate about something, you want everyone else to be passionate about it, too.

Like when I discover a funny new show. Since 2011, I have started every conversation with “Do you watch Bob’s Burgers?” If they respond, “Yes, of course,” then I know I’ve made a new friend.

If they say, “No,” then I talk them into watching it and then I’ve yet again made a new friend. It’s a great system. And yet, when it comes to politics those conversations don’t seem to go as smoothly.

Especially during election season. But! Believe it or not, there is a way to have civil online conversations about politics.

Hi, I’m Evelyn from the internets. This is the MediaWise Voter Guide. Today we’re talking about, well, talking. [theme music].

If you’re watching this video, I can maybe, probably assume you spend a bit of time on this here interwebs. These days, this is where we do a lot of our chatting with friends and family. A lot of that happens on social media.

But, social media apps are no neutral ground. The feeds we scroll through are shaped by our preferences, and that affects our conversations. You know how when you go online shopping, your Instagram ads go all haywire?

Like, you buy a toothbrush and then every single ad you see is another toothbrush? For some reason, the internet thinks -- "Oh, you found a tool to clean your teeth,. You must want and need three thousand more of those for all of your mouths." That’s thanks to ~the algorithm~.

An algorithm is just a set of rules that a computer follows. Every social app uses a ton of these to create your newsfeed. In the simplest terms, first they take everything they know about us -- and trust me, it’s a lot.

Like a creepy amount. Which pages we’ve liked, who we’re friends with, whose posts we comment on, and yes, sometimes what we’ve shopped for. That’s all run through these special algorithmic formulas, and then poof: our online experience is personalized.

For instance, the posts in your newsfeed might be organized in the order that the algorithm thinks you’ll like most. The idea is, the more you see stuff you like, the longer you’ll stay in the app. And the more money the app makes by selling ads to show while you’re there.

Does that sound a little … weird? That you’d only see stuff you already like or agree with? How are you supposed to blossom into the badass, worldly superstar you’re meant to be if you only see the same old, same old?

That’s the danger of getting all of our news from social media. There’s this idea that we’re all stuck in echo chambers or filter bubbles, only hearing what we want to hear. When we need to be truly educated about the issues, like during an election, that can be an especially scary thought.

But algorithms don’t inherently create filter bubbles that sway you towards one candidate or the other. The outputs are based on the inputs. In other words: if your online networks look and sound a lot like you, then the echo effect will be stronger.

If you typically engage with content from just Republican or just Democratic leaning profiles or pages, you’ll likely see more of that in your feed. The internet, as a rule, gives us really endless opportunities to burst those bubbles. Compared to the days when you only had a few TV channels and a newspaper to rely on, research shows you’re actually more likely to encounter different viewpoints in your online media diet.

But you have to build your networks that way. The easiest way to get out of your own filter bubble? Go follow a bunch of accounts that aren’t your usual political vibe.

Candidates, pundits, and publications from the other side of the aisle, plus other candidates from the parties you typically align with, curating a good mix of perspectives. Need some inspiration? Hit up, which explores how differing points of view report the news of the day.

Go ahead, it only takes a minute -- I’ll wait. All right, so now you’re on your way to a more balanced newsfeed. What happens when you do encounter someone who --- dun dun dun --- you disagree with?

You’ve seen it go down the bad way. First someone posts a snarky comment. Then someone else jumps in with a sarcastic reply.

Suddenly the conversation is more like an all-caps shouting match. It’s like you’re on an early 2000s reality show before they got all nice and started helping each other during the Signature Bake. What have we learned?

Nothing. Well, maybe some new insults. But have we grown from it?

Definitely not. There’s a better way. When you see a post that riles you up -- in a good way, or a bad way -- you should:.

First check your emotions. Then check the facts. Then, maybe -- and this is a big, important maybe -- respond.

Much of the engagement on social media stems from emotions getting the better of us. Next time you’re riled up and ready to post, take a beat. Step back, and consider what emotions you’re feeling.

Is it pure joy from seeing something that confirmed your beliefs? Is it validation? Or maybe frustration?

Anxiety? Take time to sit with that feeling, and step away from the keyboard, friend. Return when you are able to think with a cool, calm, and collected head.

Next, check the facts. Is this post you’re reacting to a matter of opinion? Or is it misleading or flat-out false?

Does the post feature misinformation -- as in, information that is false or inaccurate? You can watch our episode on research to really go through the process of figuring out what’s true, but for now, you can also fact-check it by asking yourself a few simple questions. Start by examining the source.

Is it a link someone has shared, or is the poster the original source of this info? Have you heard of the source before? Do you trust them?

Then, really analyze the information used to support any arguments the post is making. Is there data or research that backs this up? And where does that data come from?

Finally, take a look at what other people have to say about this. Are there other sources supporting the same claims? Or are more reputable sources debunking them?

Once you have done your due diligence, you can decide whether you even want to post at all. If you do decide to open up a dialogue and you know the person, try to do so offline, or at least in their DMs. It’s oh-so-easy to be a bit ruder than you normally would when you’re hiding behind an avatar.

Even if it’s someone you know. To see the evidence for this claim, visit literally any comment section on absolutely any website. Chances are, if you have the chat in person, the dialogue will be a lot more civil, and that will make it a lot more likely that you’ll reach a place of understanding.

If you can’t take it offline, remember to stick to the facts and be fair. Let’s try it together. Take a look at this post from someone I went to high school with.

It’s a pixelated image, devoid of any attribution, that claims gargling salt water will protect you from COVID-19. I suspect this is false -- after all, if that were the case, why would we need a vaccination, right? But, to do my due diligence, I’ll give it the old double-check.

First I’ll look for the source of the information. It’s not listed in this image, so I’ll reverse Google Image search it. The first result that comes up is a link to a fact-checking website I trust.

Inside, a doctor explains that this claim is inaccurate. Cool. Just to be sure, I’ll see what other sources say.

Another result is a news roundup of popular hoaxes from 2020. No, it appears gargling saltwater doesn’t work. So I return to this original post.

I want to make sure this person knows this is false information so they don’t keep spreading it – or trying to act on this information themselves. But I also want them to understand the correct information without feeling embarrassed. They probably didn’t mean to spread a hoax, after all.

Assume they had the best of intentions – maybe they were just excited that there could be an easy solution. So my goal is to be firm and factual. So I say, Hey there!

I did some research and, it turns out, this strategy doesn’t really work. This image has been debunked by an online fact checker, which I found by reverse-searching this image. Here’s the evidence I found.

I’d encourage you to consider removing this post – that way, no one else gets the wrong idea. Then I add the link to the fact-check. Easy peezy, right?

But, as we know, it’s not always easy. What if you’re reacting to someone else’s opinions? It’s not like you can debunk an opinion.

If someone says Beyonce isn’t the greatest artist alive, I can’t just pull up a fact-check. I mean, they’re obviously wrong but I can’t prove it, you know? You can, however, respectfully share what evidence and information has helped you form your own opinion.

Engaging with someone’s posts online, even if done gracefully, doesn’t always work out. You might not change their mind, and they might not change yours. That’s because when we’re engaged in conversation around deep conflicts, like across political parties, our brains kind of change.

We might feel threatened, which can close us off to new ideas. We might get so anxious that no amount of evidence will put a dent in our resolve. When we get tangled in these conflicts, it’s important to make sure the other people we’re talking to feel heard.

Only when we feel heard do we feel ready to listen, too. Next time you’re in one of these butting-heads moments, try “looping.” The concept comes from mediation expert Gary Friedman. It just means summarizing what someone has said to you back to them, to make sure you’re getting it right.

You might be surprised by where your version and their version may not match up, and where that might lead you. Still don’t feel like your online conversations are going anywhere? Having trouble keeping your emotions from taking over?

You can always just not respond. It’s not your job to reply to every post you see. Even for me, as a YouTuber, where it kinda is part of my job to respond to comments, it’s still not my job to respond to ALL OF THEM.

For my own sanity. Knowing when to walk away from an unconstructive conversation is important, too. Come election season, everyone wants to be part of the conversation.

We all have opinions and, if Instagram polls tell us anything, it’s that we like sharing them. But there are healthy ways to do it and there are not so healthy ways. Making sure our feeds reflect a diversity of voices and opinions is one way to improve our contributions to the discourse.

Staying calm, seeking the facts, and ensuring we’re listening to others is another. This year, try them all out as you prep for the voting booth. You just might learn something.

That’s all for now. I’m Evelyn from the Internets, and I can’t wait to chat with you again. The MediaWise Voter Project is led by The Poynter Institute – that's a journalism teaching non-profit.

Complexly, the creator of this video, is a partner on MVP. And so are Campus Vote Project and another cool coalition organization called Students Learn, Students Vote. The MediaWise Voter Project is supported by Facebook.