echo chambers: old psych, new tech

If you were surprised by the result of the Brexit vote in the UK or by the Trump victory in the US, you might live in an echo chamber – a self-reinforcing world of people who share the same opinions as you. Echo chambers are a problem, and not just because it means some people make incorrect predictions about political events. They threaten our democratic conversation, splitting up the common ground of assumption and fact that is needed for diverse people to talk to each other.

Echo chambers aren’t just a product of the internet and social media, however, but of how those things interact with fundamental features of human nature. Understand these features of human nature and maybe we can think creatively about ways to escape them.

Built-in bias

One thing that drives echo chambers is our tendency to associate with people like us. Sociologists call this homophily. We’re more likely to make connections with people who are similar to us. That’s true for ethnicity, age, gender, education and occupation (and, of course, geography), as well as a range of other dimensions. We’re also more likely to lose touch with people who aren’t like us, further strengthening the niches we find ourselves in. Homophily is one reason obesity can seem contagious – people who are at risk of gaining weight are disproportionately more likely to hang out with each other and share an environment that encourages obesity.

Another factor that drives the echo chamber is our psychological tendency to seek information that confirms what we already know – often called confirmation bias. Worse, even when presented with evidence to the contrary, we show a tendency to dismiss it and even harden our convictions. This means that even if you break into someone’s echo chamber armed with facts that contradict their view, you’re unlikely to persuade them with those facts alone.

News as information and identity

More and more of us get our news primarily from social media and use that same social media to discuss the news.

Social media takes our natural tendencies to associate with similar minded people and seek information that confirms and amplifies our convictions. Dan Kahan, professor of law and psychology at Yale, describes each of us switching between two modes of information processing – identity affirming and truth seeking. The result is that for issues that, for whatever reasons, become associated with a group identity, even the most informed or well educated can believe radically different things because believing those things is tied up with signalling group identity more than a pursuit of evidence.

Mitigating human foibles

Where we go from here isn’t clear. The fundamentals of human psychology won’t just go away, but they do change depending on the environment we’re in. If technology and the technological economy reinforce the echo chamber, we can work to reshape these forces so as to mitigate it.

We can recognise that a diverse and truth-seeking media is a public good. That means it is worth supporting – both in established forms like the BBC, and in new forms like Wikipedia and The Conversation.

We can support alternative funding models for non-public media. Paying for news may seem old-fashioned, but there are long-term benefits. New ways of doing it are popping up. Services such as Blendle let you access news stories that are behind a pay wall by offering a pay-per-article model.

Technology can also help with individual solutions to the echo chamber, if you’re so minded. For Twitter users, let’s you view the feed of any other Twitter user, so if you want to know what Nigel Farage or Donald Trump read on Twitter, you can. (I wouldn’t bother with Trump. He only follows 41 people – mostly family and his own businesses. Now that’s an echo chamber.)

For Facebook users, is a browser extension that shows the political biases of your friends and Facebook newsfeed. If you want a shortcut, this Wall Street Journal article puts Republican and Democratic Facebook feeds side-by-side.

Of course, these things don’t remove the echo chamber, but they do highlight the extent to which you’re in one, and – as with other addictions – recognising that you have a problem is the first step to recovery.

The ConversationThis article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

12 thoughts on “echo chambers: old psych, new tech”

  1. Excellent article. You reveal things and logic and I haven’t thought of before.

    “I wouldn’t bother with Trump. He only follows 41 people”
    I’m an old guy. Sounds funny to me re 41 people — I am not on Twitter or any other social media. I don’t even know how Twitter works. So 41 people is 41 more than I have.

  2. There exist better environments for getting out of an echo chamber. I’m always surprised when I lead small groups or families on a nature hike, we’re laughing and shaking hands like old friends by the end – only for me to notice a Trump bumper-sticker on their car when we get back to the parking lot. Your advice on how to discuss science to deniers has been very useful in these situations, Tom! 🙂 It’s not reasonable to expect minorities or women to tolerate hostile idiots – there’s no excuse for their anti-science or hostile attitudes; Republicans need to focus on less wasteful spending and better communities. But there’s a great story about the son of the Westboro Baptist Church leader and how going to a diverse college led him to publicly denounce his father’s bigoted campaign.

  3. Problem glossed over is the extent to which e.g. Wikipedia is already ‘converged’. It is hard to find mainstream media that will objectively cover climate scepticism, anti-evolutionism, anti-abortion etc.

    My response is to consciously pick sources from both sides and construct an echo chamber for me that covers the full spectrum – because an echo chamber is in the era of algorithms, unavoidable.

  4. I think I agree with your diagnosis of the problem, but I’m not sure how constructive your suggested solutions are. To me it would certainly not be an improvement if more of the media were to become like the BBC. The BBC’s commitment to “balance” (at least on their main news programmes) seems to mean that, whenever they have an interview with someone giving an argument or analysis on any subject, they have to have someone else in the studio saying the exact opposite. I don’t think it is helpful constantly to reinforce the idea that there are two sides to every issue, that all arguments are of equal validity, that everything splits 50/50 and it’s only a matter of arbitrary opinion. (Witness the commenter here who would like the media to give more coverage to “anti-evolutionism”.)

    What is needed is not simply to hear alternative views, but to be able to question and analyse what we are hearing.

    1. Part of my hope is that a differently (ie non-advertising) funded media would help with better content to consider. But, yes, you’re right a bit of “epistemic hygiene” is also necessary – things like stopping to think before re-posting, questioning + checking sources, etc.

      The “false balance” thing is a problem, I agree, but not unique to the BBC. It is hard to see how any media organisation can avoid adopting this policy, unless a) they have encountered an issue before or b) they are resources enough to research something conclusively before broadcast/publication

    2. I wasn’t suggesting that media must provide (e.g.) anti-evolution coverage as part of a debate. I am saying that because media is biased (or false balanced) and you want to think about and make your mind up about any important topic, then the echo chamber won’t provide it unless you consciously seek it.
      I’d bet good money, if it were possible, that you assumed I am anti-evolution. Which is a great example of bias in action. (Not that we can survive without the heuristic benefit of bias and not that bias makes something wrong but being aware of it is useful.)

      1. I think that discussion of evolution and other basic science is a matter for the education system and perhaps television shows about natural history or whatever, but not for the news media. Climate science is a little different, because there are frequently new discoveries and analyses that count as news. But if the media started giving more air time to deniers of climate change or evolution out of a desire for “balance” or “getting out of the echo chamber”, I do not see how that would be useful. Tom has written in the past about research on the best ways to “debunk” mistaken ideas – and giving more airtime to the expression of those ideas is not part of it.

        Responding to Tom’s comment: I do think that ideally journalists would research the issues and have some understanding of what they are talking about, before rushing to print or going on air. But unfortunately that doesn’t seem to be compatible with the need to fill 24-hour news channels or continuously post news articles.

        Maybe it’s off-topic, but I’m not sure what’s wrong with having media funded by advertising, or how that connects to this issue. If publications are dependent on advertising, then generally they should want to appeal to as broad an audience as possible – so there should be a natural tendency to steer away from the “echo chamber” problem. I consume a lot of media that is funded through advertising, subscriptions or donations, and that produces a lot of content that is of higher quality than the BBC, which is funded through a horribly regressive tax.

    3. You make a good point when you say that what is need is the “[ability] to question and analyse what we are hearing.” However, that is a quite hard skill to train for many people and a lot of times it comes with aging and maturing of the individual. What would be your solution to enduce the learning of this skill? Do you think it is possible for teenagers to acquire this skill during the years of highschool and be intelligent, participating, individuals of the society after graduation?

      1. Call me an optimist, but I’d say that there’s lots of evidence of good critical thinking among teenagers.

  5. Sorry, the comment above was written by me, the original commenter. For some reason the system reverted to an old username of mine from some years ago.

    1. The idea with advertising being bad is not that it encourages mass appeal (which is anti-echo chamber, right) but that the new technology of advertising a) encourages disregard for everything but clicks – “clickbait” and b) allows greater targetting of echo chambers without any need to construct a commons. i.e. it panders to our worst, short-term, instincts, rather than our more considered instincts (such as the ones which may be active when we consider which newspaper we want to be a reader of)

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