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Is Facebook Making Us Less Empathetic?

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Tuesday May 24, 2016 – In her recent Class Day speech to Yale graduates, Samantha Power, the United States Ambassador to the United Nations, challenged the crowd to begin looking at the world up close and from radically different perspectives.

In a quiet, but passionate, set of remarks, Power walked through her career as a journalist covering the war in Bosnia, as a policy adviser studying the American response to genocide, and now as a diplomat in the field bearing witness to some of the most wrenching issues vulnerable populations face. Understanding a complex world, she says, requires seeing things with fresh eyes. And that’s where things get tricky.

“From the Facebook and Twitter feeds we monitor, to the algorithms that determine the results of our Web searches based on our previous browsing history and location, our major sources of information are increasingly engineered to reflect back to us the world as we already see it. They give us the comfort of our opinions without the discomfort of thought. So you have to find a way to break out of your echo chambers.”

Powers raises an interesting point. Though Facebook has announced sweeping changes to its trending news section – while denying that they had deliberately suppressed conservative viewpoints – the human tendency to gravitate to information that supports our world view can become a comforting bulwark against the hard work of being exposed as uninformed, irrelevant, rigid, or simply wrong. The Wall Street Journal created a graphic showing liberal and conservative feeds side by side; it’s not hard to imagine that holiday dinners are only going to get more awkward going forward.

But for a society that is already measurably losing its ability to view others with empathy, the unwillingness to see others at all has frightening implications.

Powers quotes John Hope Franklin, who was on the NAACP team that worked on Brown v. Board of Education. “A color-blind society does not exist in the United States, and never has existed. Those who insist we should conduct ourselves as if such a utopian state already existed have no interest in achieving it and, indeed, would be horrified if we even approached it.”

“And [this] applies not only to enduring racial issues that have been brought to the surface in places like Ferguson, Baltimore, and Cleveland, but to so many other persistent forms of inequality and prejudice,” she said.

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