Echo chambers

[I am starting to gather more systematically thoughts and materials about the topic “Cultural Evolution in the Digital Age”, including a twitter hashtag #CulturalEvolutionInTheDigitalAge where I plan to collect some recent – and less recent – papers, articles, discussions, etc. I hope to write at some point a more thorough introduction to this project. For now, here some extemporaneous reflections on the echo chambers phenomenon]

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According to wikipedia an echo chamber

is a metaphorical description of a situation in which information, ideas, or beliefs are amplified or reinforced by transmission and repetition inside an “enclosed” system, where different or competing views are censored, disallowed, or otherwise underrepresented. The term is by analogy with an acoustic echo chamber, where sounds reverberate.

The first obvious consequence of being in an echo chamber is then to not be able to even get to know other opinions, ideas, beliefs, but that’s not all. It has been mooted that echo chambers, by presenting biased, possibly not substantiate, information, would end up to increase the credulity of the individuals (see for example here). The logic is that in a more transparent and diverse community, one would be more motivated to critically evaluate the sources of the information received. In addition, it has been suggested (see an influential paper here) that groups of like-minded people tend to produce opinions that are not an “average” of the opinions of the members of the groups, but their radical version, according to a phenomenon called “group polarisation”.

Internet, and in particular social media, are considered the perfect environment for echo chambers to thrive (see for example here, here, and here). I can not resist to address the few of my Facebook friends that ciclically complain about how their timeline is vapid/dumb and how they want to leave the social media: it’s not Facebook, it’s you! You like – or click on the links of – vapid/dumb posts, or the friends you interact more tend to post vapid/dumb things. That’s the echo chamber in action. My timeline is in general a boring succession of links to scientific papers (and – at the moment – anti-Trump articles and similar; plus, yes, the customary pictures of babies and holidays, my mum posting jokes about grandparents, etc…), but I would be clearly mistaken if I would lament that there is too much science in Facebook.

Of course all the above is real, but I believe one can go a little further.

Evil can be good. The main goal of social media like Facebook or Twitter is not to defend a particular political agenda (even though it has been recently alleged that it might be one of the goals), but to get you hooked, and to have you spend the more possible time on their website. Analogously, the recommendation systems of Amazon or Netflix want only one thing: you buying more of the products they sell. While this is worrying for some other reasons, the creation of an echo chamber system is not a direct goal of social media, and it only serves their bigger purpose. If people, on average, would get more hooked when faced with opposite opinions, or, at least, with variety, I suppose that social media would provide more of these. In fact, one would intuitively imagine that a rigid echo chamber would be less entertaining than a semi-constant stream of expected and like-minded items, with the addition of the sporadic surprising and unusual post. I do not know, however, if there is any research done of this, and if the algorithms of social media work in this way. I have the feeling, for example, that my iTunes recommendations, while clearly based on my previous listenings, are quite “broad”, and sometimes they suggest me something that, if not completely unexpected, I never listened to before. Of course it would be boring (and completely useless) if they would keep on suggesting me the same artists I already known, but I wonder if something similar might be at work – or might work – in social media.

It’s up to you. The second reason why I believe the echo chambers phenomenon is not as worrying as one might think is linked to what I wrote above, and it reduces to the fact that you contribute to create your own echo chamber. As said to my friends complaining about how Facebook is stupid: start to like less stupid things, and see what will happen. While my Facebook stream is politically very homogeneous, I follow on Twitter people linked to the HBD (human biodiversity) community – others simply call them racists – or evolutionary-minded types that oppose the post-modern social sciences and tend to gravitate politically on the right/conservative side. Together with the more-or-less leftist bunch of friends and scientists that represent the majority of the people I follow, this creates a politically schizophrenic “While you were away…” section. But, again, my own echo chamber is topic-based. But I do think I created it.

Is the internet? Finally, a major point relates to the existence of echo chambers in real life. A related phenomenon studied in cultural evolution is called “similarity bias” (see for example here, page 8) and refers to the fact that we might interact and learn preferentially from people that are similar to us. This has been particularly studied for the arbitrary signals that mark ethnic groups membership. The logic is that it is better to learn from people of our own group than from people of other groups because we are more likely to live in similar situations, and thus to have possibly the same kinds of problems. Chudek et al. conclude the paragraph on similarity bias remarking that:

So strong is our disposition to notice and use information about arbitrary, symbolically marked groupings that researchers don’t need to recruit people from different ethnic groups, they can observe the same effects by recruiting anyone at all and assigning them to entirely arbitrary groups (Kurzban, Tooby, & Cosmides, 2001).

The question is: are social media amplifying this tendency? While there are some studies that examine the formation and the effects of echo chambers online, I am not aware of an explicit comparison between online and offline effects. This is, in my opinion, a worthy research question. Does any viewer of the Fox News Channel happen to listen to npr from time to time? When we enter in a bookshop (an “offline” one), how many times do we go in a section that does not correspond to our interests, or we buy a book about an unknown topic? What about my circle of friends? If anything, as I mentioned above, I believe my twitter stream is more politically diverse than my “offline” friends, where a conservative opinion would be severely judged.

An important difference between online and offline however is that, with the former, echo chambers might be more opaque. While, even if I seldom visit it, I am aware of the existence of the gardening section of my favourite bookstore, one could be tricked into thinking that her/his Facebook timeline represents the world like it is, where everybody oppose Trump, and people get excited about the last article in Evolution and Human Behavior.

As a provisional conclusion, echo chambers do not look as a solely internet-related phenomenon, and the important question is not whether social media create echo chambers (of course they do!) but whether, and how, they differ in respect to “offline” echo chambers (more opacity seems to be one of the possibilities). What one can do about this, in daily life? Extreme solutions such as cutting our online life do not seem warranted (all the more so as the same effect is equally present offline), and it is probably unrealistic to think that social media will decide, top-down, to explicitly contrast echo chamber-like effects (as long as, as said above, this would not guarantee more profit for them). However, one can be aware of their existence, try to understand the principles that make them work, and, possibly, deliberately nurture the diversity of her or his own online activity.

3 thoughts on “Echo chambers

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