You may have heard there will be an election in the UK before Christmas. Now, don’t worry, this article is not about politics. I’m not about to start banging on about which political party you should vote for. I bring up the election because it highlighted a situation I hadn’t heard of before – an echo chamber.
What is an Echo Chamber?
I’m going to use my own social media accounts as an example. Years ago, when I first starting posting on social media, I included and added a wide range of people to my list of ‘friends’.
Obviously, they all had different ideas. They came from different backgrounds, had varying levels of education and so on. So, you could say I was subject to a myriad of viewpoints. However, over the years, I’ve defriended people whose ideas are poles apart from mine.
As a result, almost everyone on my social media accounts has the same views as me. But, the crucial thing is, I didn’t realise this until the up-and-coming election.
I began my usual postings of who I was supporting. I got a lot of ‘likes’ by my friends. And it was only then I began to understand that, in effect, I was preaching to the already converted. All my friends thought the same way as me. There was no one left to convince.
I’d got rid of all the dissenting voices years ago because I didn’t agree with them. I’d created my very own echo chamber. I was safely ensconced in my own little bubble of likeminded souls.
Now, you might say, well, surely this is just a case of our social media life replicating real life.
In our real lives we don’t tend to hang around with people we don’t like. We gravitate to those who hold the same values and opinions as we do. So what is the problem?
Well, the problem is that we only get to hear these same opinions. We don’t have anything to contradict them or to challenge them. I mean, what if they are wrong? How would we know?
I always go back to this insight when I think about right and wrong and who is in the right. An experienced CIA agent, when asked about people she has arrested, said that they all have one thing in common:
“If I’ve learned one lesson from my time with the CIA, it is this: Everybody believes they are the good guy.” Former CIA officer Amaryllis Fox
But we can’t all be the good guy, surely?
Why Are Echo Chambers Dangerous?
I have amazing debates with my sister. We don’t often have different opinions but when we do we both allow the other person to put their point across without acrimony afterwards. I remember having one argument with her years ago.
I worked in a small shop with a few staff at the time. A big news story had broken involving a sex discrimination case. A male manager had a policy of only hiring young men because he thought that women would ‘go off and have babies’.
Although I am a woman and a bit of a feminist, I argued that for small business owners this could be a real problem. Companies with only a few employees would have to consider paying maternity leave, the disruption if the woman left and having to hire someone else. I rested my case, feeling pretty pleased with myself.
My sister then went on to talk about the problems women have as they are the gender that has to give birth, not the men. She questioned why women should then be penalised for this quirk of nature. She also reminded me that the children women have to go on to pay the pensions of people like me, and the manager in question.
And that is why creating an echo chamber for yourself is dangerous. You might think you have all the answers, but until you hear a different opinion, how can you be sure?
“The first principle is that you must not fool yourself — and you are the easiest person to fool.” Physicist – Richard Feynman
What Does an Echo Chamber Do?
Echo chambers serve many purposes, even if we have created one without really being aware of it.
- They reinforce our own biases.
When you only have your views repeated back to you, it confirms what you are already thinking.
- You don’t trust people with different views.
If a person has your values and views you afford them the ‘halo effect’. In other words, you attribute other good qualities such as trust.
- You insulate yourself from opposing views.
If I hadn’t listened to my sister, I would have not had the chance to appreciate another point of view.
But this isn’t just about appreciating another person’s viewpoint. Echo chambers can cause real-world problems.
For example, there is a fall in the number of people receiving the HPV vaccine in Ireland. On the other hand, there is a direct rise in the anti-vaccine movement across the world. Meanwhile, people are dying.
How to Break Free from an Echo Chamber?
So after all this, how can you break free from your echo chamber?
- Remember, you are not always right.
- Don’t assume, always fact check, even from sources you trust.
- Include a wide number of opinions.
- Listen to different viewpoints.
- Engage with people who think differently to you.
- Don’t assume everyone feels the same way as you.
- Understand that people receive different information to you.
- Get out of the tribal thinking of ‘them’ and ‘us’.
- Burst your bubble!
Listen, I know it’s hard to leave your own crafted echo chamber. Believe me. It’s safe and warm in there and everyone is on your side. But we won’t ever move forward and come together if we can’t leave our bubbles.
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