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Alternate Realities: A Tale of Two Echo Chambers

Americans are increasingly seeing and believing two opposing views of reality.

Dean Moriarty/Pixabay
Source: Dean Moriarty/Pixabay

“Every man is a creature of the age in which he lives, and few are able to raise themselves above the ideas of the time.”

An Essay on Universal History, the Manners, and Spirit of Nations; Voltaire (1756)

These days, the most common question I’m asked besides “why do people believe in conspiracy theories?” is “how can two people come to hold such opposite accounts of reality?”

Whether we’re talking about Russiagate, COVID-19, protests and riots, or the 2020 Presidential Election, how can one person see something as “white” while the other sees it as “black?”

Beyond mental illness and delusional thinking as a rare explanation, a more normative account can be found in an internet meme that I recently came across:

“Let’s face it, if you were born in Israel, you’d probably be Jewish. If you were born in Saudia Arabia, you’d probably be a Muslim. If you were born in India, you’d probably be a Hindu. But because you were born in North America you’re likely a Christian. Your default faith is not inspired by some divine, constant truth. It’s simple geography, and adapting to the faith of your family.”

Though the quotation short-changes religious diversity around the world, it nonetheless resurrects a truism about our belief systems being attributable to “accidents of birth.”1 We all hold beliefs based on some combination of innate “folk intuition,”2 subjective experience, and faith in trusted sources of information. Many if not most of our cherished and identity-defining beliefs and values are inherited from the families and subcultures in which we were raised or that we’ve subsequently inhabited. “Personal truths” are therefore often less about objectivity and more about a kind of subjective “truthiness” that comes from matching what we’ve been told to what “feels right.”

Within the span of our current lifetimes, however, the internet has radically transformed the subculture of belief, freeing it from its geographical confines into the vastness of virtual space. This has likely meant that within a multicultural society like the U.S., ideological differences have become less dependent on which state we live in and more on what informational sources we consume, online or otherwise. Long gone are the days when Americans put their faith in the three major TV networks reporting the evening news. Now we have an almost limitless number of continuous and diverse informational sources at our literal fingertips, with the lines between objective reporting, subjective opinion, and frank disinformation severely blurred.

While access to a wider range of informational sources would seem to be an advantage for getting at the truth, especially for those of us with a healthy dose of skepticism who like to “fact check,” there’s reason to conclude that informational diversity has instead taken us further away from objective truth and made us more likely to disagree with each other. Over the past decade or so, we’ve become increasingly aware of the dangers of falling into online “echo chambers” due to both actively searching for and being passively fed information within digital architectures that prioritize information based on our preferences. But how fractured across ideological divides have our newsfeeds really become, and how much has that split affected our polarized perceptions of reality?

In 2016, the Wall Street Journal started a webpage called "Blue Feed, Red Feed" that displayed, side by side, just how different Facebook posts on the same news topic can appear based on political orientation (you can see some examples of the now-defunct project in this coverage by NiemanLab and this Medium article by Rich Gordon; a similar project was also done by NBC 9News in Colorado). In the time since “echo chamber” has become a household term, however, research has clarified that echo chambers aren’t necessarily so much about not seeing posts from our ideological opposites as they are about actively discounting and discrediting them when they appear, based on informational or “epistemic” mistrust.3,4,5

Online echo chambers represent a kind of “confirmation bias on steroids”6 driven not only by filter bubbles built into the mechanics of the search engines and social media sites, but by active “challenge avoidance” (not wanting to find out that we’re wrong) and “reinforcement seeking” (wanting to find out that we’re right) on the part of users.7

University of Utah philosophy professor C. Thi Nguyen has argued that echo chambers discredit informational sources such that the individuals within them may be following “good epistemic practices,” essentially just following the instructions set up by the informational systems in which they’re operating as opposed to succumbing to faulty reasoning or cognitive biases.5 This account is a modern version of the claim that people believe things because of “geography,” or as Nguyen puts it, “because of circumstances beyond their control,” noting that people “can be raised [within echo chambers]” and not be aware of it.

The bottom line is that most people don’t believe in alternative realities because we’re “crazy,” deluded, or irrational; we believe them because that’s what we’re “taught” within a particular epistemic worldview.

Some researchers have claimed that the effects of online echo chambers have been overstated because in reality, people consume news and information from a variety of diverse media sources beyond social media.8 Indeed, a 2020 Pew survey found that while 52% of Americans said they “often” get their news from online sources, less than a quarter said they often get it from social media, and non-social media websites and television remain major sources of news consumption.

But another Pew survey of news media consumption from 2019 confirmed the popular perception that the majority of conservatives view and trust Fox News for political reporting while the majority of liberals watch and trust CNN. As with online echo chambers, news media consumers do view sources across the political divide, but rates of mistrust of those sources are high, with 77% of liberals mistrusting Fox News and 67% of conservatives distrusting CNN. It’s as if exposing ourselves to news from our ideological opposites is mostly done in the service of “keeping an eye on the enemy.”

These findings support Nguyen’s argument that regardless of media type, echo chambers aren’t defined by users wearing passive blinders, but by the act of discrediting informational sources that contradict the trusted sources that reinforce our worldviews. Ultimately then, two people can hold opposite accounts of reality because that’s the reality they perceive within their respective echo chambers. And therein lies the danger—although one account may be more objectively accurate than another, echo chambers transform false perception into subjective reality just the same.

What, if anything, can be done to fix this polarization of perceived reality? Unfortunately, exposure to news from “the other side,” as I have recommended previously, doesn’t seem to work all that well. On the contrary, recent research indicates that mere exposure may only confirm the biases we have about our ideological opposites, thwart any potential of finding middle ground, and worsen political polarization and ideological hatred in the process.9,10 To make matters worse, when people do reach across the aisle to engage with ideological opposites online, it’s usually done out of anger and a desire to argue.11

In 2017, the nonpartisan news source Bridge Michigan published an anecdotal experiment in which a conservative and two liberals swapped news sources across print newspapers, talk radio, and online websites for a week. The experiment was soon cut short, however, because the participants found the experience shocking, disheartening, disturbing, frustrating, and ultimately intolerable. One noted, “If they say black and I say white, there’s no way to agree.” Over the past year, that kind of intolerance has been taken to a new level for some conservatives who have left Facebook for Parler and have abandoned Fox News for OAN and Newsmax, moving them into more deeply polarized territory and into a more profoundly distorted worldview.

The best hope of escaping the effects of digital echo chambers and finding the “Middle Way” with our ideological opposites may be to simply unplug. Recent research has suggested that quitting the likes of Facebook, an approach recommended in the recent documentary The Social Dilemma, can reduce factual news knowledge, but can also decrease political polarization and increase social well-being.12 Perhaps we might all be better off giving up the kind of hyper-connectedness that our smartphones give us, abandoning constant access to what’s going on in the minds of our neighbors, and foregoing our daily interactions with strangers online. In its place, we could take the time to reinvest in our face-to-face relationships and explore ideological differences within our geographic communities, where there’s a stronger sense of shared identity and purpose.

But while there’s a kind of expectation to end articles like this on a note of utopian hope, that’s not where we seem to be headed. It’s unlikely that we’ll abandon our addiction to smartphones through some revolutionary act of neo-Luddism anytime soon. Digital echo chambers are here to stay and we can expect more polarization and fundamental disagreements about truth for the foreseeable future as a result.

Of course, political polarization isn’t new, but it is a kind of rubber band that stretches apart and relaxes over time. Echo chambers have stretched that rubber band to its breaking point, such that we could see it snap in the form of something like civil war or contract in response to some other form of cultural revolution. Just which outcome you’re rooting for might very well depend on what echo chamber you’re living in.

To read more about echo chambers and political polarization:

References

1. With a little digging, the meme can be traced back to a quotation from a book called Modern Esoteric: Beyond Our Senses by Brad Olson:

“Let’s face it, if you were born in Israel you’d probably be Jewish. If you were born in Saudia Arabia you’d probably be a Muslim. If you were born in India you’d probably be a Hindu. But because you were born in North America you’re likely a Christian. Your default faith is not inspired by some divine, constant truth. It’s simple geography, and adapting to the faith of your family.”

With a little more digging, the quotation can be found to resemble a longer one by John W. Loftus from his book Why I Became an Atheist: A Former Preacher Rejects Christianity:

"If you were born in Saudi Arabia, you would be a Sunni Muslim right now. This is an almost undeniable cold, hard sociological and cultural fact. In today’s world, if you were born in Iran, you’d be a Shi’a Muslim. If you were born in India, you’d be a Hindu right now. If you were born in Japan, you’d be a Shintoist, and if you lived in Mongolia, you’d be a Buddhist. If you were born in the first century BCE in Israel, you’d adhere to the Jewish faith and if you were born in Europe in 1200 CE, you’d be a Roman Catholic. These things are as close to undeniable facts as we can get in the sociological world. ..."

2. Nichols S. Folk concepts and intuitions: from philosophy to cognitive science. Trends in Cognitive Science 2004; 8:514-518.

3. Del Vicario M, Bessi A, Zollo F, et al. The spreading of misinformation online. PNAS 2015; 113:554-559.

4. Flaxman S, Goel S, Rao JM. Filter bubbles, echo chambers, and online news consumption. Public Opinion Quarterly 2016; 80:298-310.

5. Nguyen CT. Echo chambers and epistemic bubbles. Episteme 2020; 17:141-161.

6. Pierre JM. Mistrust and misinformation: a two-component, socio-epistemic model of belief in conspiracy theories. Journal of Social and Political Psychology 2020; 8:617-641.

7. Brugnoli E, Cinelli M, Quattrociochi W, et al. Recursive patterns in online echo chambers. Scientific Reports 2019; 9:20118.

8. Dubois E, Blank G. The echo chamber is overstated: the moderating effect of political interest and diverse media. Information, Communication & Society 2016; 21:729-745.

9. Bail CA, Argyle LP, Brown TW, et al. Exposure to opposing views on social media can increase political polarization. PNAS 2018; 115:9216-9221.

10. Finkel EJ, Bail CA, Cikara M, et al. Political sectarianism in America. Science 2020; 370:533-536.

11. Wollebaek D, Karlsen R, Steen-Johnson K, et al. Anger, fear, and echo chambers: the emotional basis for online behavior. Social Media + Society 2019; 5:1-14.

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