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A 2017 Guide to Getting Out of the Echo Chamber

As communications professionals at nonprofits and foundations, we cannot afford to live in echo chambers. Yet the world of media, social media, and information consumption will fight to put you in one. The divisiveness that emerged during the 2016 election is just one of the negative side effects of living in parallel realities.

Echo chambers make it hard to communicate. Either you are talking to people who already agree with you, or yelling at people who can’t hear you at all. If we want to move our organization’s mission forward, it’s critical that we learn how to communicate effectively with all different kinds of people, regardless of the echo chamber where they spend most of their time.

Take the issue sexual violence as an example. Whether responding to survivors or preventing sexual violence from taking place, messages about sexual violence need to reach men, women, Republicans, Democrats, people who own guns and people who don’t, evangelicals, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, and atheists. If you want to effectively prevent sexual violence or support survivors, your approach has to speak to all of these audiences, not just one or two. The same goes for work to end poverty or homelessness, advance education, create jobs and address chronic health conditions.

But how do you fight back against the echo chamber? How do you peek into one that doesn’t feel comfortable to you? The answer is simple: Become an anthropologist — a curious and neutral explorer into the many ways in which people view the world.

Make the algorithms work for you. Every time you like a page, article, or post on Facebook, you paint yourself further and further into an echo chamber. (For a visual representation of this, check out the Wall Street Journal’s piece, Red Feed, Blue Feed.) If you are going to like Pantsuit Nation on Facebook, make sure you check out Trump Nation as well. When you do, you’ll switch up the rotation of suggested articles.

Find publications that offend you. If you read the National Review, add Huffington Post to your list. Or vice versa. When you read a story on Salon, check out how it was covered by Breitbart. Subscribe to both The Washington Post and The Washington Times. Over time, you will start to uncover themes, message points and trigger words that matter to those with perspectives different from yours.

If publicly liking a Facebook page makes you nervous, consider Twitter. On Twitter, you can create private, curated lists of diverse voices, like members of Congress, advocates for and against gun control, religious leaders, or even extreme advocates. Use hashtags to find opposing view points, and then see who those people follow or retweet.

Audit your email subscriptions. In the wake of the election, take some time to shake up your inbox with a mix of organizations like Planned Parenthood, NAACP, Republican National Committee, Democratic National Committee, and the NRA. You can even set up a separate, anonymous email account where you can receive this kind of information, if you have qualms about sharing an email address with an organization that may not share your personal values. If you only have time to read the subject lines, you’ll still learn a lot.

Don’t forget about faith-based and religious organizations. Spiritual and religious communities respond in very different ways to political conflict and human rights abuses than the secular foundation and nonprofit world. And there are lessons to learn about engaging followers through hopeful messages and compelling video and image content. More practically, following organizations across faiths will ensure you don’t schedule events or communications that conflict with major holidays.

An echo chamber is comfortable, but it doesn’t help nonprofits and foundations advance their missions. When we communicate to the people inside our echo chamber, we can inadvertently make our messages more polarizing and our community of supporters more insulated. Make 2017 the year you get out of your echo chamber, and communicate with the people who need and want to be engaged with your work.


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