Echo chambers

The idea that, thanks to social media, we are all sorted into “echo chambers” where we only hear views identical to our own, is a commonplace. I think the whole idea of echo chambers is misinformed.

There’s a range of viewpoints close enough to your own that discussion is useful, and a range so far distant that no such discussion is possible. There’s no reason to suppose that this range will encompass the party political spectrum in some particular country. In the case of Australia/US that spectrum includes climate deniers and creationists (with a high degree of overlap).

Taking the creationist case because it’s simplest, what is the point of discussing evolution with them? And from their POV, while they are willing to score debating points where they can, they really can’t have a serious discussion within anyone who isn’t (at the least) a theist.

Admittedly, it’s useful to know what the other side is saying, if only to refute it in discussions with people who hold intermediate views, and whom we may want to convince or learn from.

But here the attack on the modern world social media falls flat. In the kind of one-newspaper town that used to be common, the existence of alternative views could be ignored more or less completely. Now it’s almost impossible to avoid them, if only in the caricatured form presented by the media of your own side.

17 thoughts on “Echo chambers

  1. A twist is that echo chambers can develop which take opposing views on the same issue but share overwhelming concern with that same issue. CNN unrelentingly attacks Donald Trump and Fox unrelentingly supports him. Yes, you can choose your side but you don’t get to choose the issue. The ice-cream sales-people converge to the center of the beach but one is looking due south and the other due north. Perhaps the fact of Trump is an overwhelmingly important concern with different tribal groupings adopting their respective stances. But it is incredibly tedious – even world news (e.g. on China, the Middle East) is exposited almost exclusively from the viewpoint of Trump’s actions.

    Many of the same remarks can be made about the news coverage of what was the Fairfax press in Australia and that of Newscorp although the AFR these days seems to be switching sides a bit. Similar obsessions (e.g. political scandals) and people can choose their sides but something tedious about the common themes.

  2. But Professor Quiggin’s whole point is that it’s wrong to label these as echo chambers. Along with a roster of paid Trump toadies, CNN features hours and hours of Trump espousing his views—including much unedited, unfiltered, full lunatic coverage of Trump, rather than the highly sanitised version featured on, say, the BBC, which makes him appear to be a normal politician.

    Fox News, for its part, is obsessed with rising Democratic star Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and is convinced that merely presenting her policy platform to its audience is an effective rebuttal:

  3. I thought John was being ironic.
    This blog is fast becoming too close in Catallaxy in having closed views.
    It even gets to the extent of closing comments to people whose views are not in agreement.
    Whether it be social conservative or economic liberal views.
    Oh for the days where Jason Soon and John Quiggin agreed on more issues than they disagreed.

    To my point of view let people who have a different point of view have their opinion shown.

    If they have no case then it is easily seen. This is different to not understanding their case which john and most commenters have shown in relation to who can teach in religious schools for example.

  4. @ Luke. I think John is saying that the idea of “echo chambers” is misinformed and that they are essentially non-communicating groups or groups between which communication is not worthwhile attempting. That, in fact, doesn’t shift things far from the standard view that groups talk mainly with those with whom they share a consensus view. The distinctiveness, as I understand John’s views, is that these days, with social media, we are at least aware of the other views – we hear but, if sensible, don’t attempt to argue.

  5. We hear only what we want to hear! This means that we can listen to a different opinion but still block it out of our consciousness. The echo is always our own views voiced after we have had our say. Only when we listen for that do we hear it come back to us. It is a verbal/word mirror. But like a mirror it can come back distorted.

  6. I think JQ’s observations are accurate enough and indeed they make some nice distinctions. The question is whether these observations have any practical application. Here, I expose my bias which is to expect comments and observations on a site dedicated to socialist and democratic to have a practical application for the purposes of progressing the causes of socialism and democracy.

    JQ makes the essential point (I think) that the modern media scene, especially including social media, is less echo-chamberish than the old scene of orthodox mass media. This is true in itself. There are many more news and opinions outlets, professional and amateur, on the internet. The connected global village has many more publications than the one-newspaper town. Putting a comment on a blog is much easier than getting a letter to the editor published.

    However, JQ then points out that we cannot have useful debates except with those who viewpoints are close enough to ours for effective debate. I guess this expresses the general idea of limiting factors for useful debate. J.Q. gives some specific examples. Rather than having a mere proliferation of echo chambers (over the previously imposed single echo-chamber of the one newspaper town) we have a modest gain in the amount of useful debate. Modest gains are better than none . But we have to look at relativities. Are modest gains in useful debate effective or meaningful when there is a great multiplication in “fake news”, “fake facts”, “post-truths” etc.? I am not sure of the answer to this myself.

    In turn, what is the practical point of my raising this issue? The new connected social media world is here and here to stay and evolve. That is the brute fact of the new situation so my caviling about it has little point unless I can offer useful suggestions.

    What is J.Q’s point? Perhaps that the glass is half full? That the new social media are on balance hopeful signs for developments in socialism and democracy? Offering hope has some point I guess. But can we find practical applications which give us gains on the ground? I am just wondering. Is this where J.Q. is heading with these ideas.

  7. Perhaps the metaphor is just too simply stated. I’d prefer “resonance within densely connected groups” as describing a property of graphs (in the nodes-and-edges sense of computer science) where the nodes represent people (or I suppose groups of ideationally identical people, or individual-like institutions) and edges represent communication, e.g. by reading blog posts or articles. Thus the New York Times might be a node and its readership would be nodes connected to it. Hmm, let’s make that a directed graph, i.e. one in which the edges have a direction of flow.

    Now suppose we have a densely connected subgraph; the nodes of this subgraph are, with high probability, connected to one another by one or anyway a small number of hops, like maybe three.

    Suppose further that you can find cycles in this dense subgraph. Now you might find yourself with a situation where node A generates some idea (perhaps out of thin air, or by misunderstanding some outside source; it doesn’t matter). A writes about it; B reads it and reposts; C embellishes and restates it; then A sees C’s post and sees it as confirmation or affirmation. Thus resonance. In a dense subgraph with many redundant paths, it might seem to a lurker D as if the idea was just “in the air”. And when D sees it come in from many directions at once, it’s easy for D to think it must be true. A has originated an alternative fact.

    I think this resembles resonance more closely than echoing, but I don’t particularly care about that distinction. The idea of a chamber? That’s weak, because as JQ points out the “chambers” are very leaky. I think my directed graph is much nicer, because you can talk about degrees of connectivity, noise level on the channels, perceived authority (or lack thereof) of the nodes, distances and numbers of paths from one node or subgraph to another node or subgraph, and so on. You can also talk about stuff like epidemics and vaccinations, percolation, and so forth.

    And I can easily imagine social-media companies already having data looking a lot like that.

    Against all those advantages we have the phrase “echo chamber” which has a certain concision and clarity of intent but which wrongfully implies a kind of hermeticity that isn’t really present. It has, however, the competitive advantage of the simple but defective metaphor: it’s easy. Sigh. Meme bites model. How boring.

  8. @ nottrampis,

    If you turned up here sober and with coherent arguments, you wouldn’t be censored so often.

  9. @ Homer Paxton aka nottrampis aka one hundred plus other sock puppets:

    Your alcoholic incoherence wasn’t welcome at Catallaxy either. In fact, if I remember correctly, Sinclair banned you. Am I right?

  10. David Knapp,

    Good comment. Much more focused than mine. It contains several excellent ideas which seem potentially useful (and probably are being used as you point out). Your comment overall seems to be a complex systems way of looking at things.

    “Meme bites model”. I like it! I wonder if this idea connects back in any way to what I said, “We have a modest gain in the amount of useful debate. Modest gains are better than none . But we have to look at relativities. Are modest gains in useful debate effective or meaningful when there is a great multiplication in “fake news”, “fake facts”, “post-truths” etc.?” I guess we could add “memes” to my list.

    I wonder if the only chance of hopeful (adaptive) developments from the setup you describe (which is a much better model than the echo chamber meme) lies in what we might call an evolutionary direction. I mean “evolutionary” in the sense it is used in the phrase “evolutionary algorithm”.

    In the evolution of ideas, nodes (often persons) can misconstrue and/or recombine ideas. To the individual person it may seem, or even be the case, that he/she is using induction and/or deduction (various logics) to develop new ideas. To the real, external environment (social and natural) it matters not how an idea is arrived at. What matters is whether or not an idea works or has an effect in practice. To follow the correspondence idea of truth, the idea must be correspondent with, or isomorphically model, some aspect of reality to some usable (practical, pragmatic) degree.

    The recombining of ideas in the model you describe can be seen as a generator of new ideas (by recombinations and novelties – a novelty being a mutation of sorts). The process of new complex ideas being shared (propagating) or dying might be like the progress of key code components or parameters in an evolutionary algorithm. Am I reaching too far here?

    The part(s) of the population which function at the echo-chamber end of the spectrum circulate old ideas (often ones with little or no factual basis) and probably generate few novel ideas. They tend to repeat the same old saws and prejudices over and over. Though their volume is high, their novelty content is very low. Each popular, unoriginal and fact-impoverished meme is like a single mono-cultured strain. It continues propagating in a cultural medium benign to it but can die out en masse if exposed to new and effective challenges to its claims. For example, the once majority-supported flat earth idea died out long ago except among certain fringe cranks who maintain it to this day.

    A given new idea (an idea with genuine novelty in it) will rarely take. Occasionally one will take if it resonates with widely shared experience of social realities or if it contains objective truth (as correspondence) with regard to real (natural) systems.

    Not sure if I have made any kind of case here or if I am just waffling.

  11. Hello, me! Having a good day? How nice. Having a bad day? How sad.

    The advantage of talking to yourself is that you are guaranteed a sympathetic ear.

  12. Hugo, please observe comment policy and don’t attack other commenters. If anyone has a particular problem with another commenter, they can contact me and ask for appropriate action.

  13. Ikonoclast,

    Thank you for your kindly thought. I don’t imagine that my directed graph is particularly new, but I always like to make stuff up for myself before checking the literature; it sometimes helps and is always more fun.

    I think that we can see something like the kind of evolution you mention most clearly in scientific communities. Ideas will circulate, to be sure: but there is a constant flow of reality into the community. Perhaps a good way to think of that would be to posit a single node, I’ll call it “objective reality”, that talks to everybody. We don’t always understand what it’s saying or how causality flows in what we see, but scientists are constantly trying to observe and interpret reality’s signals, and ultimately to correct the ideas they transmit. The graph isn’t really changing, the people aren’t really changing, but the ideational content of the graph is changing over time.

    This view emphasizes the ideas flowing through the graph and leads us to wonder about the ways these ideas propagate and mutate during their (perhaps cyclic) journeys. That is, instead of an algorithm being refined, I am imagining that the ideas are being refined, probably by much the same algorithm being applied in every node. Call that algorithm a reasoning process, if you like. It’s informed by whatever training and experience we have benefited from, which is both highly individual and also time-varying, but I think the underlying interpreter of inputs and experience is probably much the same across biologically normal individuals.

    Then ideas (I think of them as sentences in English) would flow into a node, are perhaps mutated by the reasoning process, and perhaps flow out again along the edges of the graph.

    Now I can describe an evolution of the distribution of ideas over the entire graph. Suppose for example 33% of us believe that the Earth is at the center of the universe and 33% of us believe that the Sun is the true center, while the remainder of the population just has no opinion. Then an evolutionary shift would be represented by those numbers changing; the ideas are constant in this case, but their distribution over the graph is not. Another form of evolution would be where the actual ideas change: someone imagines gravity, or some such idea, and it spreads through the network as people come to see its connection to some important reality-driven problems.

    We could also talk about topological changes in the graph, but I think that’s a much slower process and right now I’m stealing time from my real job. Adieu.

  14. Hugo,
    Being banned from Catallaxy is a badge of honour.
    I got banned from showing him up. I now do that at my place.Much more fun.

    My favourite amongst many was when Sinkers described Swan’s last budget ( that he had responsibility for) as expansionary. It was the most contractionay in budget history. It reduced GDP by 0.8 percentage poiunts. The average budget of the last 25 years has added 0.8 percentage points.
    He has yet to describe any budget since that episode as expansionary or cotractionary..

    The irony was it was the budget all those fiscal illiterates over there were calling for. They neither recognised that nor would accept it caused the economy to slow down!!

    your comment again was very catallaxian

  15. David Knapp,

    “I always like to make stuff up for myself before checking the literature.”

    I am rather like that myself though I prefer to call them attempts at philosophical inductions and deductions.

    I’ve come to question the ontology of economic objects delineated by orthodox economics (OE), that is when OE even bothers to engage with ontology seriously, which is extremely rare. But then much of OE is a prime example of an echo chamber, IMHO.

    To summarize, OE has not grappled properly with the ontological issues of real system / formal system interactions. In practical terms, this means failing to deal successfully with real ecology, real people, real economy interactions both between each other as systems and also with and mediated by legal, financial and money systems (as formal systems).

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