Are echo chambers as prevalent or significant in social media as initial research suggested?

Two separate pieces of research have thrown into disrepute whether echo chambers are as effective in creating online bubbles to conceal certain perspectives and information as initial research suggested.

Echo chambers are also referred to as filter bubbles and have been regarded as an issue synonymous with the threats that social media has produced to political and social discourse.

What is an echo chamber?

Have you ever found yourself in a social situation where only a certain viewpoint is present? Or, perhaps you have viewed a group discussion as an outsider and felt that contradictory information or opinions would be neither welcome nor able to gain access?

In essence, an echo chamber is a metaphorical term to describe a situation or phenomenon in which only certain perspectives that are aligned can exist within. For example, social media has often been regarded as the catalyst in such situations as users are only likely to follow/read/share opinions and information that confirms their pre-existing beliefs. Further, social media algorithms have been found to pre-empt the information that users want to see and in doing so produces news feeds that are likely to conform to user’s pre-existing beliefs and thus forming individual’s very own echo chambers within their own news feeds.

Joseph Akinsanya is a web developer at Carzen Innovations and a lecturer in computer science at a federal territory institution and told us that he believes echo chambers and filter bubbles are present throughout society in a number of forms.

“Echo chambers have always been with us. As humans, we have the tendency to gravitate towards those who hold the same views as us especially on issues that are considered contentious. Politics and Social conversations fall under this categorisation.”

What are the threats of echo chambers?

The idea of an echo chamber has often been viewed in a pejorative nature for a number of reasons. We will split this into three.

(Watch and listen to our explainer video below)

Firstly – and perhaps most obvious, echo chambers can leave individuals and groups to grow narrow minded and unlikely to consider viewpoints that contradict their own. Further, an exposure to only certain pre-existing viewpoints can leave individuals with tunnel vision and prevents them from evaluating their own opinions.

Secondly, misinformation and fake news are a hot topic of late in political and social discourse – echo chambers have been considered as a cause for these. As previously mentioned, if one finds themselves in an echo chamber they may be unlikely to fact-check or evaluate information they receive and this will thus leave them more susceptible to misinformation. Confirmation bias is the theory that as consumers we are likely to believe information that aligns with our pre-existing beliefs. Therefore, if we are in an echo chamber we are exposed to information that we are less likely to be skeptical of and in doing so are more likely to believe misinformation presented to us.

Thirdly, polarisation of political and social opinions has seen a spike in recent years with the EU referendum and 2016 US election. Further, populists have gained attention from the public eye and echo chambers may have played a part in all of this. An echo chamber inevitably shuts out contradictory information and can thus allow individual perspectives to grow even more extreme and exaggerated.

Computer science lecturer Akinsanya has highlighted the cultural implications that echo chambers can have. Akinsanya told us that he felt the nature of social media can often stifle needed and constructive debate.

“In my opinion, the negativity attached to echo chambers is in the fact that it insulates people from opposing and uncomfortable views – views needed to enrich and drive conversations forward. This current generation of ours is losing the art of disagreement and its in part due to the influence of echo chambers on social & mainstream media. Echo chambers promote isolation and isolation can be anti-progress in a globally-connected world”

What is the evidence for echo chambers?

Gregory McCormick is the manager of cultural planning at the prestigious Toronto Public Library and has recently helped to launch an initiative to help individuals escape echo chambers (see more). McCormick told us that he believes that echo chambers are evident throughout society and not just in social media.

“I live downtown in one of the largest cities in North America [Toronto] and when someone mentions Trump or Conservative politicians, often nearly everyone in a room will react negatively – roll eyes, hiss, boo. I am most definitely not a Conservative, but assuming that I can react negatively this way reinforces what we already believe. It’s very rare for us to honestly engage day to day with someone who has a different political persuasion.”

McCormick summarises that these attitudes thus lead to the repercussions that we have already outlined that echo chambers can possess. “It makes us unaware of the entire scope of an argument or the subtleties or background in that argument. This is what frequently happens on social media, for example, when one person gives a small part of the situation or argument to his or her followers and everyone weighs in with strong opinions or anger without having the entire picture or all the details of the situation. ”

Much of the early theoretical literary work surrounding the idea of echo chambers stems from work and theories devised by the US scholar Cass Sunstein on asymmetric bayeniasian and more. However, it was Eli Pariser who garnered the attention of the public eye when he published his critically acclaimed novel ‘The Filter Bubble’ in 2011.

Eli Pariser’s novel ‘The Filter Bubble’ is a New York Times bestseller.

Pariser’s work outlined how social media created filter bubbles through user interaction alongside strategically built algorithms and the threats that came with such echo chambers/filter bubbles. Pariser has since gone on to found Upworthy – an online media outlet that garners millions of views on their content. Further, Wired published an article last year in which they speculated that Pariser’s early work had predicted the outcome of the 2016 US election and the future of social media.

What is the evidence against echo chambers?

Grant Blank is the Survey Research Fellow at the Oxford Internet Institute at the University of Oxford and is also a sociologist specializing in the political and social impact of computers and the Internet, the digital divide, statistical and qualitative methods, and cultural sociology. Blank told us that a fundamental limitation of Pariser’s early work on filter bubbles and echo chambers is that his research is predominately anecdotal.

“Eli Pariser’s work is very interesting but all the data there anecdotal. So he has no systematic data. And, that’s true of Cass Sunstein as-well. We looked at this as an opportunity to cast light on this problem from a more comprehensive system that had not been used before. We really didn’t start out with an agenda here, rather just to see what our data showed us.”

Blank was part of a team from the University of Oxford who published a paper titled ‘The echo chamber is overstated: the moderating effect of political interest and diverse media.’ The research involved surveys with 2000 participants from the UK and Blank states that what they found would suggest that echo chambers are not as prevalent as first thought.

“There clearly is such a thing that people like people who agree with them. And they tend to dislike disagreement. You can show that quite easily in a lab. The question in the real world – is that a description of how people absorb political information given the media that they consume? And the answer is no, it does not appear to be a good description of the way political information is transmitted.”

Further, the 2017 annual Reuters report found that filter bubbles and echo chambers are not as excessive as originally indicated. The Drum published comments from the Director of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, Dr David Levy, who suggested that their worldwide research had found that echo chambers are continually overstated and are little different to tunnels of information consumers obtain from traditional media.

What are the limitations of suggesting that echo chambers are overstated?

It is necessary to point out that by dismissing the role of echo chambers we can largely ignore the potential risks that they bring. Further, the research that suggests that echo chambers are overstated is relatively new and has even had limitations highlighted by those who have carried out the work. Grant Blank stated that he wanted to expand his research to further countries.

“The next plan is to extend this to the other six countries for which we have data to see if it holds for those six countries as-well and we will write a paper on that.”

Blank highlighted that he was skeptical whether their findings will be consistent throughout other countries.

“I think for many countries like Britain it should probably hold but it’s not clear for me whether it should hold for countries like Poland or Italy because the media there are quite different.”

Further, Gregory McCormick from the Toronto Public Library told us that the message from the work carried out by Blank and his team does not dismiss nor diminish the role of echo chambers, it simply provides us with an understanding on how individuals interpret them.

“From my understanding, the overriding message of the report was that echo chambers exist, but that people tend to have ways to mitigate them. And, make no mistake, echo chambers have always existed as I’ve noted. I think, too, that people self-report when it comes to these kinds of studies and how can we accurately self-report when we’re not even aware of what we’re not aware of?”

What next?

We must consider that much of the research into echo chambers is relatively new. Therefore, in essence untested. A report released from the Hewlett foundation this week titled ‘Social Media, Political Polarization, and Political Disinformation: A Review of the Scientific Literature’ has outlined what we are still yet to find out about the perviously mentioned topics.

Within their findings they discovered that research into political states that differ from the UK and US is still relatively neglected. While findings have disputed whether echo chambers are as prevalent in counties such as the UK, research into states that have different political and social discourse is yet to have been conducted.

Further, the report also highlighted the need for research into the role of bots. This can be extended into the role that bots can play in creating filter bubbles and echo chambers. This has been relatively untouched by research and highlights that the topic of echo chambers is far from a conclusive one.


Billy Hodder.

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