Echo Chambers, Their Risks, and the Need for Discomfort

This week, we heard from Kaitlin Wooley, who recently conducted a study about how discomfort can lead to personal growth. As we learnt through speaking to Kaitlin, this growth comes in many forms, most notably in my opinion, an increased receptiveness to other perspectives. In Kaitlin’s study, this was shown to be applicable to political elections, and gun violence. The advent of social media has allowed us to surround ourselves with similarly minded people, and create echo chambers – comfortable enclaves of the internet where our views are not challenged. MIT researchers Marshall Van Alstyne and Erik Brynjolfsson warned us of this side effect of the internet in 1996, when they stated that ‘Individuals empowered to screen out material that does not conform to their existing preferences may form virtual cliques, insulate themselves from opposing points of view, and reinforce their biases. Internet users can seek out interactions with like-minded individuals who have similar values, and thus become less likely to trust important decisions to people whose values differ from their own.’ Given this week’s podcast is about discomfort, this article will similarly discuss its importance, and the risks that come with being too comfortable in online echo chambers.

What are Echo Chambers?

The concept of an online echo chamber may, to many, seem fairly straight forward, defined as ‘bounded, enclosed media space that has the potential to both magnify the messages delivered within it and insulate them from rebuttal’. In echo chambers, information is taken and redistributed and reiterated in a way which remains consistent with the group’s believe; they also ‘work by offering a pre-emptive discredit towards any outside sources’. This is hugely evident in conspiracy based climate echo chambers, and the flat earth echochamber, where it is hard to block outside information from becoming accessible to members, but still possible to discredit it. Crucially, it is this discrediting that ‘protects’ those within echo chambers from alternate views; the side effect of this is that these groups become increasingly isolated, leaving them  more at risk to becoming more susceptible to misinformation (take the diehard Trump supporters who take his views on ‘fake news’ as gospel).

Source: OSU

Echo Chamber Extremism

The key risk of the isolation outlined above is how swiftly having one’s views consistently reinforced can lead to extreme polarisation and extremist ideology, particularly within politicised echo chambers. According to Magdalena Wojcieszak, a professor of communication at the University of California, Davis, despite being a subset of social media users, those who consume hyper partisan media can become extremely consequential due to how politically involved they can become. She states that these echo chambers cna make someone ‘more extreme or polarised [by reinforcing] attitudes. It also reinforces [one’s] sense of belonging to this group, and it reinforces [their] negativity and hostility toward other groups’. ‘You think you’re the legitimate one, the good one, the virtuous one. The others are evil’. This has become worryingly common amongst the far right in the United States, such as those Trump supporters who are fully convinced that COVID was a hoax; some have become so partisan and extreme in their views that there are concerns that they are beyond help.

Are All Echo Chambers Epistemically Bad?

Whilst the risks of echochamber extremism are both vast and worryingly easy to fall victim of, there is an argument that, in some cases, where seeking out alternative views, to escape an echo chamber, will not be beneficial. Take climate change, for example. If I am reading a fact checked article about the impact climate change is having on wildlife, would it  be beneficial to seek out the view of the climate denier, who has restricted the information they see to fit their narrative that the climate is not changing? Many would say no, for the key reason that to do so would leave me at an increased risk of being ‘misled by misleading evidence’. In general, we seem to be drawn to the idea that by consuming information in an echo chamber that echoes only true beliefs and reduces the flow of critical views of true beliefs – i.e. misleading evidence – we are participating in a healthy epistemic ecosystem; ‘we should want to inhabit truth-conducive echo chambers’ to use philosopher Jeremy Fanti’s words. In this case it would seem that sources affirming climate change would fulfil that category. 

But even with this example of climate change, it would be useful to heed caution. As has already been discussed, restricting oneself to any echo chamber, no matter truth-conducive, would leave us at risk of developing increasingly partisan views, not just about the causes of climate change, but about effective ways of bringing about meaningful change. Even within the realm of climate change there exist hugely polarised views concerning the actions of groups such as Just Stop Oil and Extinction Rebellion, with some seeing their actions (including blocking motorways, and protesting at large sport events) as crucial to drawing attention to the pressing issues at hand, whilst others can go as far as to resort to violence against these protestors, despite being epistemically in favour of making efforts to reduce  and mitigate the impacts of climate change. Without seeking other viewpoints, the risks of radicalisation, no matter how gradual, are vast.

Just Stop Oil Protestors threw tomato soup on Vincent Van Gough’s ‘Sunflowers’ at the National Gallery in London, on October 14, 2022. 
Just Stop Oil/Handout/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

The Need for Discomfort

Circling back to Kaitlin Wooley’s study,  in order for us to continue to grow as people, we have to allow ourselves to get uncomfortable; the risks of not doing so, especially when it comes to seeking viewpoints that do not align with our own, far outweigh the ideals the comfort of an online echo chamber, where we are not challenged. Without this discomfort, not only will we stop learning and challenging our minds, but we also risk our views straying from the reasoned to the radical. Of course it is crucial to fact check information, to mitigate the risks of encountering misinformation; but do not let the risks of this stop you from seeking out other views points, feeling a sense of discomfort, and breaking out of the echo chamber.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *