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.
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
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, otherside.site 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, politecho.org 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.