Escaping from the echo-chambers of politics
Open Democracy, by Alica Thwaite
In 2016, many people were shocked by the results of the Brexit referendum in the UK and the election of President Trump in the United States. They simply didn’t see these things coming, despite being well-educated, well-read, and deluged with information from social media. They couldn’t understand why so many people were dissatisfied with the status-quo, perhaps believing that anyone who thought differently from them was a racist or an idiot.
How could that be? How could people who spend their lives sharing news and discussing politics be so out of touch? And what can be done to address the tendency of both left and right to exist in a comfort zone of self-reinforcing ideas and opinions?
These are the questions that sparked the founding of the Echo Chamber Club in 2016. Each week we send out a newsletter to our subscribers who self identify as ‘liberal’, ‘progressive’ or ‘metropolitan’ containing a selection of previously-published articles that come from sources outside their existing networks. The goal is to showcase different points of view—often radically so. We’ve made the case that women who call themselves ‘pro-life’ can be feminists, for example; presented Russian perspectives on the Syrian crisis; and investigated whether popular comedy shows on television are too liberal.
Why is this important? At the very least we hope that readers will understand ‘the opposition’ and be more prepared when the next BREXIT comes around. But more than that, we want to break down silos and encourage people to confront discordant points of view. Over time, we think that’s likely to lead to a more inclusive political culture and a better quality of debate. But why is the echo-chamber problem so pronounced in the first place?
My background is in media, technology and sales, so initially I thought that creating a new technology would help users to access different points of view. However, whenever you develop an app you have to be incredibly precise about the specifications of the product. Given that we don’t really know what causes the echo-chamber problem it’s difficult to create a quick-fix solution.
A lot of blame is laid at Facebook’s door since they have developed an algorithm for choosing what you see on your news feeds. Facebook’s business model depends on advertising, so the more time you spend on the platform the more advertising you see. As a result, the algorithm is designed to show you news and other material that are similar to the things you already engage with, and that perpetuates the echo-chamber effect by filtering the ideas you see and those you don’t.
There are other factors too. Take newspapers, which have been hit hard by the digital revolution. They have had to adapt the content they produce to make money via online advertising. The type of content required online is typically more simplistic than for print media, requiring shorter sentences, punchier headlines and subtitled videos.
Similarly, anyone can become a journalist these days by gathering information from social networks, producing an article in minutes and breaking stories. Compare this to pre-digital times when journalists had to go out and speak to many people before writing the first version of their article. A lot more time and thought was required before completing a piece.
Another reason why we may be more prone to echo-chambers comes from the dehumanisation of people online. The anonymity of social media makes it much easier to troll and abuse someone if you don’t know and can’t see them. This may cause you to lose empathy for those who have different opinions to you. There may be some technological elements to a solution to these problems—Max Ogles, for example, has written about a potential interface to humanise people you don’t know on Facebook by giving more prominence to a person’s face and not just to their comments—but I doubt whether technology will be enough.
That’s why experiments in humanly-curated newsletters like the Echo Chamber Club offer some promise. Each week the editors have complete flexibility in the information we present to subscribers, but that doesn’t mean that there’s no structure involved. Three rules are especially important:
First, we curate newsletters but we don’t create them. We never write new opinion pieces. Arguably there are far too many opinions in the world anyway, and adding more is unlikely to get to the ‘truth’ of the matter. Instead, we aggregate the voices of other people and curate the articles they write.
Secondly, we must have evidence to show that each newsletter will be challenging to our target audience—‘liberal and progressive metropolitans.’ Once you know where the echo-chamber exists you can confront it. It’s important not to resort to guesswork. So every morning I do a quick analysis of the echo-chamber of the day by checking what’s on the front pages of the publications subscribers say they read, like the Guardian and the BBC. We also check Facebook Trending to identify popular stories, and have a couple of Twitter Lists that we push through Nuzzel.
Third, we advocate the views of many different groups. You might think an easy solution would be for subscribers to read the conservative-leaning Spectator every week. However, in doing so they would only become familiar with the views of one other source. The Echo Chamber Club is not restricted to the views of any particular section of opinion from the centre-right to the far left.
We’ve been issuing weekly newsletters since June 2016, and most of them fall into one or more of the following categories:
Tenzing was Edmund Hillary’s guide when climbing Mount Everest. Hillary needed to have direction from another source to reach the summit – otherwise he simply wouldn’t know where to go. Our Sherpa Tenzing newsletters touch on a completely different subject that might not be discussed in the echo-chamber at all. We dive deep into something that seems to be ignored, and which is unlikely to be accessed without a guide.
“Dark Side of the Moon.”
Sometimes a news story will break, and it will be the number one discussion point for people in their echo-chamber. Most of the time the group will converge on a single point of view in terms of how that story should be interpreted. In our Dark Side of the Moon newsletters we try and showcase an alternative perspective that’s held by a different group on the same news story. We’re both looking at the same moon, but we see entirely different things.
“Against the Indisputable.”
By indisputable we mean a deeply held ethical or moral opinion that’s held by the members of a group. Take the notion that all feminists must be pro-choice by definition. When we argue against the indisputable, we challenge these views, as we did in this newsletter that presents a range of views on pro-life feminism.
Occasionally we fact-check the sources of prominent news stories that are doing the rounds on social media. The purpose of these newsletters is to show that one group is just as likely to fall victim to ‘fake news’ as any other.
What results have we seen thus far?
To start with I’ve received a lot of emails from subscribers that show the Echo Chamber Club is helping to bridge the gap between different viewpoints. One messaged me to say that she’d had the first productive conversation with her mother-in-law in years after reading our newsletter about Brexit.
Another told me that she is starting to feel more confident in creating more inclusive opinions because our content says things that not many other media outlets are prepared to publish. In addition, our newsletters have thousands of subscribers with an average open rate of 41 percent. Our list grows at an average of five per cent week on week, mainly through word of mouth.
Nevertheless, there is still a lot of resistance. The first question people ask me is why I’m publishing newsletters for ‘liberals and progressives’ when surely it’s the other side that needs more help? I’m conscious of the argument that we could be ‘normalising’ and giving credence to views that would be better left unshared. However, I value and believe in the underlying principles of the Echo Chamber Club—freedom of speech and the belief that people are more likely to reach reasoned decisions when they have a variety of evidence in front of them.
This isn’t easy. I frequently feel a lot of ‘cognitive dissonance’ when putting out newsletters with which I strongly disagree. For me, this comes in the form of nausea and procrastination. It’s also made it very difficult for me to get involved in anything else that requires any level of my emotional attention. Nevertheless, I strongly believe that society needs to find better ways to help people with different views truly listen to one another. From the evidence so far, it looks like the Club is helping its subscribers to do just that, and that’s enough for me.