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Theo Wilson: The Danger of Online Echo Chambers

The U.S. is highly politically polarized, partly thanks to the internet. While the web includes perspectives from people all over the world, most of us never dive deeper into the beliefs we don’t agree with. That is unless you’re Theo Wilson. Disguised online as a conservative white man named Lucius, Wilson went undercover in the alt-right. Learn more about his detective-work and the power of online echo chambers in his TEDxMileHigh talk.

Undercover in the Alt-Right

It all started with a viral cell phone video that made Theo Wilson internet famous overnight. As a survivor of police brutality and a friend of Alonzo Ashley, a Black man who died due to police violence, he posted videos discussing racism. His newfound success meant more viewers who appreciated his content. It also meant more internet trolls. 

I remember being called highly colorful racial slurs by those who use the anonymity of the internet as a Klan hood. And some of them were pretty creative, actually, but others were pretty wounding.” – Theo Wilson

Grappling with racism online, Wilson understood that his trolls saw him as “an idea, an object, [and] a caricature,” but not a person. As his trolls increased, he noticed that they were smart but highly misinformed. He wondered, “Where are these guys getting these arguments from? Like, [is] there some kind of alternative universe with alternative facts?”

At the time, Wilson didn’t fully understand online echo chambers. The realization hit him, “I had been living in an online universe that just reflected my worldview back to me. So my timeline was pretty liberal. I had no Breitbart or Infowars or Fox News. No, no, I was all MSNBC and The Daily Show, CNN, and TheGrio. These trolls were hopping the dimensional doorway, and I needed to figure out how.”

What are Online Echo Chambers?

An echo chamber is defined as, “an environment in which somebody encounters only opinions and beliefs similar to their own, and does not have to consider alternatives.” When someone visits an online echo chamber, they seek news and information online that confirms their already formed views, without considering contrasting perspectives. Social media algorithms reinforce online echo chambers by centering ads, news, and content around your likes and views. Yet, even if social media makes online echo chambers more common, it is often a choice to stay inside. Theo Wilson was curious to discover what might happen if he purposefully exited his online echo chamber.

Disguised as a White Supremacist

In an attempt to uncover this hidden online world of conservatism, Wilson set up a fake conservative profile. Hidden behind the Youtube handle Lucius25, Wilson began mirroring the online behavior of his trolls. He would post antiblack sentiments on videos and denounce Black leaders. In his own words, “It was kind of exhilarating. Like, I would literally spend days clicking through my new racist profile.”

As he visited the pages of some of his former trolls, Wilson noticed how normal they seemed. They were regular Joes, outdoorsmen, family guys. He even found himself having some compassion, which was a big shock to him.

“Never in a billion years did I think that I could have some kind of compassion for people who hated my guts. Now, mind you, not enough compassion like I want to be friends. I don’t have infinite olive branches to extend to people who, like, would not want to see me on this planet. But just enough compassion to understand how they got to where they are.” – Theo Wilson

Embracing Curiosity

In order to grow, Wilson discovered the need to let go of fear and embrace curiosity, something he believes most people are not comfortable doing. Thinkers like Michelle Alexander and Dr. Joy DeGruy could have answered the questions that the alt-right were asking online, Wilson noticed. Only, these thinkers never ended up in conservative online echo chamber timelines. 

To Wilson, it is the online echo chamber itself that is so hazardous to civilization. He says, “We have got to break out of these digital divides because as our technology advances, the consequences of our tribalism become more dangerous.” He believes that our hyperfocus on intelligence squashes our emotional intelligence. Instead, we need to develop our character, patience, forbearance, and compassion. Only then can we overcome the detriments of technology and the internet.

How to Overcome Internet Polarization

It might seem like an impossible task, but Wilson thinks there’s a way to overcome the divisiveness of the internet. He says, “What if I told you that one of the best ways to actually overcome this is to have courageous conversations with difficult people? People who do not see the world the same way that you see the world?”

To meet this goal, Wilson created ShopTalkLive, which is a space for people to come together, find alternative viewpoints from these alternative digital universes, and break them down. Wilson broadcasted these conversations online and invited people with different views to discuss these topics in real life.

We have to understand something. Human beings all want the same things and we have to go through each other to get these things.” – Theo Wilson

According to Wilson, these courageous conversations can help us see people as people and not the ideas that we project onto them. Hiding inside of online echo chambers cannot help people understand and respect the humanity of others.

We Need to Build Compassion

There are more ways than one to build compassion between people with widely different views. Check out Romain Sepehr Vakilitabar‘s TEDxMileHigh talk on the potential for empathy technology or explore whether people can really change their perspectives.

Theo Wilson is hitting the TEDxMileHigh stage again this year in TEDxMileHigh: Rise. Don’t miss a chance to see him speak for free. Register here.

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