In the 2016 election, articles endorsing Donald Trump were shared 256.5 million times, and pro-Hillary Clinton shares reached 238.5 million. Despite the abundance of public Trump advocacy on social media, most liberals were surprised and outraged by Trump’s election win; they never encountered blog posts such as “Why I’m Voting for Donald Trump,” which was shared 1.5 million times. Our Facebook feeds are not only narrowed due to our choice of friends, whose beliefs most likely reflect our own but an algorithm that promotes posts similar to those we’ve already clicked on or liked. As Millennials and Gen Xers get most of their political information from Facebook, many Americans live in self-constructed “filter bubbles,” which endlessly echo our own beliefs. Sharing a post on social media is therefore unlikely to change the direction of anyone’s mind; all you’re doing is validating a pre-formed opinion.

While you’re not changing the direction of opinion within any given bubble, you can manipulate the strength of belief with the information you share, essentially adding fuel to the fire. In our time of a profound political schism, this action can be dangerous – especially when it comes to the spreading of exaggerated or downright false information. The intentional spreading of falsehoods has the potential to affect more than just your Facebook friends; your thoughts and shares can influence everyone from your ex-best friend from high school to the President of the United States. Our current President is deeply rooted in his own self-selected bubble (choosing to rely on sources such as Fox, Breitbart, InfoWars, and various Twitter users), and tends to glom onto bits of unsubstantiated information, spread it wide, and use it to justify the policy. For example, in November Trump insisted that millions voted illegally, tweeting “In addition to winning the Electoral College in a landslide, I won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally,” and displayed several other public mentions of “massive voter fraud.” However, his belief did not come from any major news outlet, but an unproven tweet from a Californian named Gregg Phillips, whose claims have been debunked by multiple experts in voter fraud as well as White House officials. Despite the original source’s lack of any evidence, this information was quickly disseminated by the President-Elect and picked up by the media. Whether you are Alex Jones of InfoWars or @JohnDoe, the information you spread does have the potential to sway both individual belief and national regulation – but only within the circle, you are already in.

With the power to deepen political strife or affect policy, we ought to be careful with how we wield our words, questioning the veracity of our sources, and searching for truthful information even if it contradicts our current beliefs. But how can we do this, if we are stuck inside of our “filter bubbles?” The first step is to learn how to interpret information for yourself. Reports often manipulate facts – it’s all too easy to extrapolate bits and pieces of a study and present it in a way that proves a point, a phenomenon known as “confirmation bias.” This is akin to when people manipulate or increase their social media profiles when they buy Twitter followers and even review them. When reading an article, ask:

Where is this information coming from? Does this report cite any sources? Are those sources reputable?

Is this news outlet biased? (i.e. does this clearly paint one side as the “good guy” and the other as the “bad?”)

When possible, look for primary sources, and thoroughly analyze the results of a given study. In some cases, even primary sources can be misleading, as researchers also suffer from selection or confirmation bias, and studies funded by corporations might intentionally manipulate data in their favor.

Let’s take this article as an example – it starts off with some pretty concrete numbers; “In the 2016 election, articles endorsing Donald Trump were shared 256.5 million times, and pro-Hillary Clinton shares reached 238.5 million.” When you read that, did you ask “where are these numbers coming from and are they true? Why aren’t any sources cited?” If not, you probably should have - they could have come from nowhere, and been cited later by other news and information outlets as the primary source. In actuality, these numbers do seem to have some backing; they come from a WIRED article, which cites “Ahrefs, Alexa, BuzzSumo, Facebook, Google AdWords, Twitter, and Wired” as its sources for the data. While these some of these seem like decent sources, they aren’t ideal – where exactly is this study? Who or what is Alexa? How did WIRED combine these multiple sources and synthesize their data? The claim “As Millennials and Gen Xers get most of their political information from Facebook” should have also raised your eyebrows – just as any fact-out-of-nowhere should (though, this information does come from the Pew Research Center and includes a complete report PDF). The only blatant “caught you” lie is insubstantial - Gregg Phillips actually tweeted from Texas, not California. The take away here is: fact check AND source check. Here is another source outright detailing how Hillary Clinton may have paid for retweets on Twitter.

In addition to fact and source checking, manipulating your filter bubble to include posts that you may not agree with can help you understand where the other side is coming from. You can like pages you don’t agree with, intentionally click on articles shared by the rare friend who isn’t of your political party, and even sign-up to receive e-mails with links to articles promoting beliefs from another bubble.

While intentionally seeking out contradictory information is useful, the best thing you can do is be an advocate for truth. Whether you are liberal, conservative, green, alt-right, or undecided – look for truth. Be open-minded, and try to empathize with others. Only share information that you have fact checked. Comment on articles with false information, alerting fellow social media users. Be willing to change your beliefs. Continually question yourself and others – while you can’t necessarily sway those outside of your bubble, you can help your own circle move more towards the middle with unembellished, truthful material, promoting our country to heal from a division founded by groundless prejudice and falsehoods.

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Content written by Stephanie