Opening Students’ Minds: How to Combat the Social Media Echo Chamber

By Barbara Theirl

The Media’s Perception

Social media has undoubtedly expanded classroom walls, but has it also closed the minds of our students? The echo chamber effect suggests so-students want to hear what they think is the truth and search for others through social media who agree with them. They share, reinforce their ideas, and feel vindicated. The echo chamber continues to go around and around, limiting differing viewpoints and balanced perspectives.

As educators, we should be asking ourselves how we could help students navigate outside their comfortable echo chambers and broaden their sense of social media community.

The Problem with Our Newsfeeds

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg thinks echo chambers may not be as bad as everyone thinks, but research shows otherwise. Kartik Hosanagar (@khosanagar), a professor at The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania and cofounder of SmartyPal and Yodle, researches the impact of algorithms on consumers and society.

When Hosanager reviewed research conducted by Facebook in 2015, newsfeeds and algorithm analysis showed three factors influencing what users view and use for information online retrieval in social networks. Unfortunately, the results suggest a deep polarization.

First, research confirmed that users viewed news stories shared with them by friends, and information those friends are viewing. Second, users viewed news shared via the newsfeed algorithm. Lastly, users viewed news they chose themselves to click on. Of these three, it is the first and last information seeking actions that determine where users ultimately get their news and information.

The primary concern for Hosanager—and for many teachers—is that students choose to click on only viewpoints they agree with, creating an insular world. Journalist Bill Bishop agrees in his book The Big Sort “over the last 30 years, Americans have sorted themselves into like-minded neighborhoods.” We live, work, and play with people that think like us. Is this potentially closing our minds and hearts to other perspectives?

Questioning Assumptions

Combating the echo chamber means getting students to become critical thinkers and reflectors. A lesson that promotes critical thinking and reflection is analyzing a hoax website. Students learn that everything they find online, including social media information, should be questioned. Although students may not be on social media sites, the following lesson reinforces and helps students question their assumptions by examining websites.

Presenting a hoax website, such as the Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus, that may seem legitimate is one way to incorporate higher-level taxonomy thinking, especially when students dig deeper and open their minds. After reviewing the website, “Think, Pair, Share” or “Turn and Talk” are effective techniques for learning, followed by small group online researching. Each group can then share their findings in a whole group setting.

A second lesson idea, titled Check Your Assumptions, is effective at developing critical thinking and reflection by examining ways online data can fail. Even numbers, data visualization, and online collections of information often do not represent the population at large. Using this lesson helps students identify how assumptions can lead to false conclusions-useful skills that will translate to students’ social media interpretations. This lesson is made available through Creative Commons and is accompanied by activity sheets and supporting lesson help.

Opening Students’ Minds

Harvard’s Dean of Education James Ryan spoke at the 2016 Harvard Graduate School of Education commencement and presented five questions for future educators. These questions should be embedded in our teaching agenda. Let’s refer our students to them and guide students in thinking critically and seeking larger perspectives.

  1. Ask, “Wait, what?” Slow down. Understand and seek clarification before advocating any view.
  2. Ask, “I wonder why?” or “I wonder if.” Stay curious.
  3. Ask, “Couldn’t we at least…” to get past disagreements and to reach some level of consensus.
  4. Ask, “How can I help?” Humbly ask for direction.
  5. Ask, &lqduoWhat truly matters to me?” Examine your own beliefs and convictions.

Social media is shaping our students, and that same media is becoming the primary shaper of our world-our civilization. Let’s challenge our students to ask themselves about the tools they use. Are they shaping their tools, or are the tools shaping them?

Barbara Theirl recently retired after teaching information literacy and technology for 27 years. She has served in various educational leadership positions and as an assistant professor and teacher supervisor at two universities. Theirl, a former copresident of the Information Technology Educators of Minnesota was appointed to the Minnesota State Library Advisory Council and served as chair for two terms. She has been a keynote speaker, invited presenter for statewide conferences on information literacy and technology, and has served on advisory councils for several college of education departments. Theirl has traveled to numerous states and Thailand promoting information literacy, technology, and a love of reading. You can contact Barbara by email at
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