Echoes of Misinformation

dff34-e886ac_6656c5c308fe449b922b9348951bd2admv2_d_1426_1783_s_2Colton Stanislawski

The idea of an “echo chamber” is a rather new development. The term refers to a group of people or an organization that controls a groups’ media, potentially leading to the absence of dissenting or external views. Arguably, echo chambers have existed before, but they have most recently gained attention and notoriety due to their relevance in today’s political climate. The United States’ most recent presidential election revealed that echo chambers changed the way that many people thought about the candidates and dissenting views. The issues brought about by echo chambers are numerous, and they mainly affect the average person. The average person in the US experiences echo chambers for numerous reasons, with the blame falling both on them as well as those controlling the media. One concept is certain though. Echo chambers have become a topic of great concern for the public because of their rise in pertinence, the growth of media control over information, their ubiquity, and their dangerous effects.

The rise in the relevance of echo chambers may be attributed to the prominence of social media in the average person’s life. The modern era features people who are dependent on social media for their news intake, which this causes several problems (Boutyline, 2016). Aside from fake news, which is a different matter, the climate experienced in an echo chamber is often one of intense support for already-established ideas and beliefs (Garrett, 2009). This may seem like a controlled, negative environment in thought, but in execution, it attracts people with a false sense of security. By subscribing to one of the few prominent sides of an argument, a person joins a community of like-minded individuals who will support anything said that agrees with the already-established views of the group. Seth Flaxman found this to be true in his 2016 study of online news consumption. After analyzing conducted in 2016. news bias patterns in social media-promoted content and user-found (browsed) content, he concluded that “individuals generally read publications that are ideologically quite similar” (p. 317) and that people who read opinionated articles “are almost exclusively exposed to only one side of the political spectrum” (p. 317). It’s a near guarantee that, they in these spaces, people will not need to prove their point or fight for what they believe in. All they need to do upon entering an echo chamber is go with the flow.

Social media offers the perfect setting for the stagnation of ideas. When people join social media groups or news networks, they tend to gravitate to what they already believe in (Flaxman, 2016). This habit was revealed in is proven by a study conducted in 2015, headed by R. Kelly Garrett, a professor at the School of Communications at Ohio State. He studied people’s social media preference concerning news intake and found that his “results suggest that subjects’ news item selections were biased toward opinion reinforcement and against opinion challenge” (p. 270). That is, conservatives will follow conservative pages and liberals will follow liberal pages. This seems like a rather obvious logical thought path to follow, but delving into this idea unearths some unnerving ramifications. A lack of outside input means that the other side of the argument is not given a fair chance (Garrett, 2015). Both sides are alienated, allowing for an ever-strengthening identity of thought polarization of opinion to take place solidify within the group. This vehement lack of understanding from both sides fosters an “us vs. them” mentality, one that is growing ever more prominent in the environment experienced by Americans today (Levendusky, 2013). By denying excluding different views the option to be present infrom a debate, all sides suffer from a fundamental miscommunication of what the debate is inherently about.

The blame for people not receiving a wide variety of news and viewpoints on a subject can be shifted to numerous organizations and individuals, but the main guilty parties are often found to be the news sources themselves. People aiming to try and gather truly unbiased, high-quality journalism often find themselves frustrated by the surprising lack of truly neutral reporting available to the public today. There are very, very few information networks, news providers, and media distributors that do not have some sort of skew toward one side of an argument or another (almost always left or right-winged in the US). The simple ubiquity of biased news makes it an almost daunting task to try and stay informed in the current news climate. Because most media are is skewed in some way, people end up taking sides on issues that they merely wanted to explore. It is easy for news organizations and groups to take a side, even if subtly, to ensure a base of support from people who already have that view.

Matthew Levendusky addressed this topic in his 2013 study on echo chamber-esque media activity, “Why do Partisan Media Polarize Viewers?”. He says affirms that “these programs broadcast one-sided, proattitudinal messages to viewers, which they will uncritically accept” (2). They play it safe by hinting slightly that one side of an argument is correct, making sure that they receive followers and fans no matter what the situation is. People gravitate toward and listen to sources of information that align with their own views, so a simply informative article is often not enough to gain attention (Levendusky, 2013). This fendemental flaw in the way that information is published and produced easily explains the difficulty in finding simple, informative content. By not showing all sides of an argument or debate, these information providers are denying the reader the ability to form a truly cohesive opinion on a subject, which then drives even more people to be caught in echo chambers as their beliefs grow stronger and they seek agreement and comfort in a group of people who think the same way.

These echo chambers have detrimental immediate and long-term effects. First, people see issues in a different way than they normally would if they have been exposed to a group of people that strengthen their views. Support networks, especially online, is one that brings with create a slew of consequences in the way that people see the world around them. They make people more willing to strengthen their views on a subject despite what the other side may say. Levundusky (2013) again explains that the effects of echo chambers are “concentrated among the more informed, engaged, and extreme segments of the populace who regularly watch partisan media programs” (p. 5). The effect of these groups of people doing nothing but supporting one another’s viewpoints fosters a sense of community. The community associated with these groups is often one of total isolation. In a lot of many cases, and the lack of diversity in the ideologies and thoughts of the group makes them hostile and unwilling to respect the viewpoints of those from the other side (Levendusky, 2013).

The idea of isolated groups becoming radicalized against outside viewpoints is covered quite extensively in Johnathan Bright’s 2017 paper, “Explaining the emergence of echo chambers in social media: the role of ideology and extremism.”  In the paper, Bright asserts that the filtering of different types of information led to an increased neglect for any dissenting opinions. He found, through studying the social media patterns of people on Twitter that, “as one or both parties in a party pair tend towards the ideological extremes, communication pattern between the drop” (p. 12). Bright observed that, “centrist parties communicate more than extremist parties” (p. 12), a trend supporting the idea that divided and strong-willed groups will isolate themselves more, and thus can form more divided and extreme opinions on a subject.  By participating in a group that only serves to reaffirm beliefs, one is introducing themselves to an environment in which they can foster more radical views.

Some of the biggest and most consequential sources of echo chambers are political parties. Bright affirms that “larger parties seemed to generally communicate less with other groups” (p. 15), showing that even prominent and relevant groups fall victim to the dangers of echo chambers. The point being made here is not that echo chambers make people believe radical and extremist views. Instead, the absence of outside views on any subject can cause more concrete and  uncontested arguments about one side of the debate. The overflow of information and support for one viewpoint often makes people fail to consider whether or not the other side’s views are even pertinent to the conversation (Bright, 2017).

Although the division and confusion caused by echo chambers may all be quite disturbing, there is truly hope for those who wish to remove themselves from these fundamental flaws in today’s information sharing. Most people do not have the free time associated with researching all sides of an issue, but that doesn’t mean that they can’t train themselves to consider different viewpoints automatically. Keith Stanovich (1997), a psychology professor at the University of Toronto, conducted a study to see if people who actively tried to be more open-minded while hearing about different viewpoints experienced different ways of thinking about issues presented, and he “found stronger relationships between cognitive ability and the tendency to evaluate evidence independent of prior beliefs” (p. 352). His research supports the idea that it is possible to make one’s self more open-minded and able to consider different views. However, people do not need to learn every viewpoint of an argument to understand the problem fully. They simply need to learn to think in a way that allows for opposing ideas to enter their heads. Just by watching an opposing television program or reading an opposing magazine, even occasionally, people can gain a greater understanding for all sides of an issue (Stanovich, 1997).

Echo chambers change the way that people take in information, and they are growing more relevant by the day as more people fall into their comforting grasps. The inability for of those on one or both sides of an argument to acknowledge the others’ views as a valid point within an issue is something to be concerned about, and but the media surrounding the average citizen is not going to do much to address this problem. It is going to be up to the people themselves to try and think differently, challenging their own views and becomings informed citizens. There is no doubt that people naturally move toward groups that hold the same views as them. It is more comforting and validating to be surrounded by like-minded people. The lack of knowledge of the different sides of an issue that come with this comfort is something that is inevitable if echo chambers continue to hold their prominence in the media. This is an issue that affects each person living in this nation today, and it will continue to affect us for as long as echo chambers have the power that they have right now. The least that we owe ourselves is to be preventative of the stagnation of ideas and beliefs within our minds and the minds of those around us.

References

Boutyline, A., & Willer, R. (2016). The social structure of political echo chamber: variation in ideological homophily in online networks. Political Psychology, 38(3).

Bright, J. (2017). Explaining the Emergence of Echo Chambers on Social Media: The Role of Ideology and Extremism. SSRN Electronic Journal. Retrieved November 05, 2017.

Flaxman, S., Goel, S., & Rao, J. M. (2016). Filter Bubbles, Echo Chambers, and Online News Consumption. Public Opinion Quarterly, 80(S1), 298-320.

Garrett, R. K. (2009). Echo chambers online?: Politically motivated selective exposure among  Internet news users. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communications, 14.

Grömping, M. (2014). ‘Echo chambers’ Partisan groups during the 2014 Thai election. Asia Pacific Media Educator, 12(1).

Levendusky, M. S. (2013). Why Do Partisan Media Polarize Viewers? American Journal of Political Science, 57(3).

O’Hara, K., & Stevens, D. (2015). Echo chambers and online radicalism: assessing the internet’s complicity in violent extremism. Policy & Internet, 7(4).

Sarkar, D. (2015). Paper: ‘echo chambers’ reinforce beliefs rather than challenge them in climate change debate. FierceHomelandSecurity.

Stanovich, K. E., & West, R. F. (1997). Reasoning independently of prior belief and and individual differences in actively open-minded thinking. Journal of Educational Psychology, 89(2), 342-357.


Colton Stanislawski is a first-year Mechanical Engineering student at Tech. When he’s not doing homework or participating in AFROTC, he’s either hanging out with or playing alongside his friends in the Huskies Pep Band’s Concussion section. Colton decided to write this paper because he saw echo chambers as an alarmingly prevalent problem in the recent election cycle. He hopes to draw attention to this issue and help people make more informed decisions regarding their democratic power.