In the wake of the attempted takeover of a symbol of democracy such as the US Capitol last month, and the foreseeable difficulties facing the Biden administration in healing a deeply divided country after four years of Trump’s divisive approach, perhaps we should take some time to analyze the impact of the echo chamber effect created by social media.
In short, an echo chamber is the result of too narrow a news and information focus. In the past, when access to information was mainly through a few channels, echo chambers came about through choice, an effect that was reinforced when our friends and family did the same. Sometimes it is linked to education: ill-informed people tend to go for clear editorial lines and avoid exploring others, adopting, as a consequence, radical positions, often based on conspiracy theories.
This phenomenon, reflected in sayings such as “birds of a feather flock together”, produces closed groups with perspectives that diverge from the rest of society.
The internet and social media have radically increased the sources of information available to us. If I compare the time when I studied 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 to build systematized portfolios of information sources, to which are added algorithmic recommendation systems and even certain social filters. The task of simply staying informed has become extremely difficult.
The internet, and phenomena such as search engines and social networks, has also brought algorithms. Their impact cannot 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 increase your metrics as much as possible: your time spent on 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.
Facebook’s goal is to give you more of what you like the most: all the content you read, comment on, like, etc. is automatically considered an invitation to “give me more of the same”. Basic, but it works: if you get more of the same, you’re likely to keep wanting more. That, right from the start, tends to deprive you of diversity of viewpoints, of ideas different from your own. But it’s not simply about getting more of the same, Facebook consciously hides different opinions, it buries what might lead you to change your opinion or to nuance it. This also happens with search engines: if you want to check it, compare the result of your searches in your usual browser, and in another one that you do not use regularly and in which you have never identified yourself.
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The next effect is even more perverse: social networks also check what the people you have defined as your network of contacts read, and try to give you more of what they consume. This, which in principle should provide you with common topics of conversation, actually produces a confirmation bias, reaffirming your beliefs. We no longer feel alone in our views, but see ourselves legitimized and even protected by our environment, which, in addition, generates feedback dynamics: whoever expresses their ideas radically stands out the most.
We saw the results of this in January: among those storming 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, thus justifying a crusade. In their amazingly distorted worldview, things simply “couldn’t be any other way.”
Echo chambers are a complex phenomenon, the result of many factors. But as a society, we have a duty to fight them: personally, analyzing how we inform ourselves and what our level of risk is; and collectively, who we talk to, who we work with or which groups we belong to.
Understanding and internalizing the concept of the echo chamber and how it may affect us is a fundamental part of living in society.