Echo chambers are online environments where individuals are surrounded by like-minded people and opinions. Communication and debate inside such places mainly revolve around fixed beliefs and ideas, resulting in strong confirmation bias. Furthermore, people inside echo chambers may refuse to consider alternative viewpoints which leads to a growing distance between them and anyone who disagrees with them. This is ultimately unhealthy for a functioning democracy.
The Bad News of Echo Chambers
Echo chambers might give us a support community where we feel heard, seen and understood. People inside can voice their concerns and frustrations without feeling attacked or judged. However, this very same environment is not conducive to a healthy democratic process because people are not getting a variety of viewpoints. For example, during World War II, several German citizens acknowledged the inhumanity of Nazi crimes. However, living under the Nazi regime, they did not have a chance to stand up against these crimes. Similarly, if people are confined to their echo chambers, opinions and ideas may become distorted to the extent that they aren’t able to see the whole picture.
Regrettably, it is not always intentional to fall into this kind of situation. Social media algorithms tailor the media we see to our likes, forcing only one type of content to our attention. Consequently, it becomes easier to fall into an echo chamber. In 2016, the American Journal of Political Science conducted research, where they found that people tend to exaggerate the prevalence of their opinions so that they feel confident enough to keep them. When surrounded by friends or accompanied by family members who have homogeneous views, individuals feel incentivized to speak out and validate their beliefs.
The consequences of echo chambers can be dire. Narrow-mindedness leads to dangerous oversimplification of issues and fosters despise for other ethnicities, traditions or political beliefs. In addition to that, echo chambers feed into confirmation bias, where the same information is emphasized and reinforced over and over again, leading to a warped view of issues. Even when presented with an alternate perspective, individuals can dismiss them with superficial arguments because the information presented does not align with their predetermined beliefs. All of these opinions will continue to exist in the digital enclosures of echo chambers, breeding subjectivity rather than objectivity.
Steps to Take If You’re Stuck in an Echo Chamber
It’s possible to escape an echo chamber. However, taking constructive steps is not always easy. Individuals need to become aware of their digital environment and actively seek out different perspectives. Later, they must learn to examine issues from a wider perspective. One useful tool for this is our ability to fact-check. By doing fact-checking of the information we are being presented with, that might contradict what we already know, we can construct more grounded and objective knowledge on political and social issues. Even more so, this helps to avoid the spreading of false information on the internet.
It is imperative to listen to diverse voices. Seek out places to learn different perspectives by following a variety of people on social media, reading democracy-supporting blogs across the political spectrum and reading content that offers a wider ranging view. Being informed has abruptly become not only a civic duty but also a social responsibility. When exposed to the truth, readers have the opportunity to form their views more comprehensively.
Fact-check: False News and Social Media
The World Bank Group conducted research and raised awareness about the dangers and prevalence of false news on social media. This is a piece that takes a closer look at different aspects of the social media ecosystem and how it’s affected by fake news.
Joseph Kahne and Erica Hodgin, writing for The Atlantic, discusses an important issue for democracies like the US: political polarization. In this piece, the authors argue that education is key in curbing the dangerous divide between political lines.
Bridging the Divide
Echo chambers present a serious threat to a balanced, healthy democracy, where multiple opinions can be featured and debated. A democratically strong society is one where everyone can present their opinions without fear and where a space is created for rational conversation. By becoming aware of one’s own echo chamber, and proactively seeking out diversity in opinions, individuals can help to create a more balanced, effective democracy.
It is paramount to understand the workings of our digital universe and the impact it has on our lives. If we want to make facts and ideas matter again, it’s essential to move beyond a monolithic exchange of information and adapt a more diverse approach to listen to a plethora of view-points. This way, we can bring back conversation and democracy from the brink of conflict and mutual misunderstandings and, finally, create a healthy democratic dialogue.