Why We Ought to Take The Time To Query Whether or not We’re Dwelling In An Echo Chamber
After trying to adopt a symbol of democracy like the U.S. Capitol last month, and the foreseeable difficulties the Biden administration faced in healing a deeply divided country after four years of Trump’s divisive approach, perhaps we should take some time to analyze the effects of the echo chamber effect caused by social media.
In short, an echo chamber is the result of too narrow a news and information focus. In the past, when information was mainly accessed through a few channels, echo chambers came about by choice, an effect that was intensified when our friends and family did the same. Sometimes it has to do with education: ill-informed people tend to follow clear editorial lines and avoid exploring others, and as a result take radical positions, often based on conspiracy theories.
This phenomenon, which is reflected in sayings like “feather birds flock together”, creates closed groups with perspectives that differ from the rest of society.
The internet and social media have radically expanded the sources of information available to us. If I compare the time when I did my MBA in 1989 with the present, the difference is clear: Then the recommendation was that managers should read at least three newspapers a day, one general, one international and one economic. Now I recommend my students create systematized portfolios of information sources to which algorithmic recommendation systems and even certain social filters are added. The task of simply staying informed has become extremely difficult.
The internet and phenomena like search engines and social networks have also brought algorithms. Their effects are not to be underestimated and should be understood. Take Facebook: a social network whose only criterion created by a young man at Harvard to decide who was “hot” or “not” on campus is to improve your metrics as much as possible : Your time for articles, your clicks, your “likes” etc. It’s purely linear: the more time you spend on Facebook, the more advertising you get and the more the company earns.
The goal of Facebook is to give you more of what you like best: any content you read, comment, like, etc. is automatically treated as an invitation to “give me more”. Basic, but it works: as you get more of these, you will likely always want more. As a result, from the start you are deprived of the variety of viewpoints and ideas that are different from your own. But it’s not just about getting more of the same, Facebook deliberately hides different opinions, it buries what could cause you to change your mind or nuance them. This also happens with search engines: if you want to check, compare the result of your search in your usual browser and in another one that you do not use regularly and in which you have never identified yourself.
The next effect is even more perverse: social networks also check what the people you have defined as your contact network are reading and try to give you more of what they consume. This, which should in principle give you common topics of conversation, actually leads to an affirmation bias that confirms your beliefs. We no longer feel alone in our views, but see ourselves legitimized and even protected by our environment, which also creates a feedback dynamic: those who radically express their ideas stand out the most.
We saw the results in January: among those who stormed the Capitol, the widespread idea was not only that the elections had been a fraud, but that in many cases the winners were part of a pedophile sect, which warranted a crusade. In their amazingly distorted worldview, things just “couldn’t be any different”.
Echo chambers are a complex phenomenon that can be attributed to many factors. But as a society we have a duty to fight it: to personally analyze how we inform ourselves and how high our risk is; and together with whom we speak, with whom we work or which groups we belong to.
Understanding and internalizing the concept of the echo chamber and its effects on us is an essential part of life in society.