An Excellent essay from Aeon
What are Echo Chambers and Epistemtic Bubbles?
Current usage has blurred this crucial distinction, so let me introduce a somewhat artificial taxonomy. An ‘epistemic bubble’ is an informational network from which relevant voices have been excluded by omission. That omission might be purposeful: we might be selectively avoiding contact with contrary views because, say, they make us uncomfortable. As social scientists tell us, we like to engage in selective exposure, seeking out information that confirms our own worldview.
An ‘echo chamber’ is a social structure from which other relevant voices have been actively discredited. Where an epistemic bubble merely omits contrary views, an echo chamber brings its members to actively distrust outsiders. In their book Echo Chamber: Rush Limbaugh and the Conservative Media Establishment (2010), Kathleen Hall Jamieson and Frank Cappella offer a groundbreaking analysis of the phenomenon. For them, an echo chamber is something like a cult. A cult isolates its members by actively alienating them from any outside sources. Those outside are actively labelled as malignant and untrustworthy. A cult member’s trust is narrowed, aimed with laser-like focus on certain insider voices.
In epistemic bubbles, other voices are not heard; in echo chambers, other voices are actively undermined. The way to break an echo chamber is not to wave “the facts” in the faces of its members. It is to attack the echo chamber at its root and repair that broken trust.
Listen to what it actually sounds like when people reject the plain facts – it doesn’t sound like brute irrationality. One side points out a piece of economic data; the other side rejects that data by rejecting its source. They think that newspaper is biased, or the academic elites generating the data are corrupt. An echo chamber doesn’t destroy their members’ interest in the truth; it merely manipulates whom they trust and changes whom they accept as trustworthy sources and institutions.
And, in many ways, echo-chamber members are following reasonable and rational procedures of enquiry. They’re engaging in critical reasoning. They’re questioning, they’re evaluating sources for themselves, they’re assessing different pathways to information. They are critically examining those who claim expertise and trustworthiness, using what they already know about the world. It’s simply that their basis for evaluation – their background beliefs about whom to trust – are radically different. They are not irrational, but systematically misinformed about where to place their trust.
Notice how different what’s going on here is from, say, Orwellian doublespeak, a deliberately ambiguous, euphemism-filled language designed to hide the intent of the speaker. Doublespeak involves no interest in clarity, coherence or truth. It is, according to George Orwell, the language of useless bureaucrats and politicians, trying to go through the motions of speech without actually committing themselves to any real substantive claims. But echo chambers don’t trade in vague, ambiguous pseudo-speech. We should expect that echo chambers would deliver crisp, clear, unambiguous claims about who is trustworthy and who is not. And this, according to Jamieson and Cappella, is exactly what we find in echo chambers: clearly articulated conspiracy theories, and crisply worded accusations of an outside world rife with untrustworthiness and corruption.
Once an echo chamber starts to grip a person, its mechanisms will reinforce themselves. In an epistemically healthy life, the variety of our informational sources will put an upper limit to how much we’re willing to trust any single person. Everybody’s fallible; a healthy informational network tends to discover people’s mistakes and point them out. This puts an upper ceiling on how much you can trust even your most beloved leader. But inside an echo chamber, that upper ceiling disappears.
Being caught in an echo chamber is not always the result of laziness or bad faith. Imagine, for instance, that somebody has been raised and educated entirely inside an echo chamber. That child has been taught the beliefs of the echo chamber, taught to trust the TV channels and websites that reinforce those same beliefs. It must be reasonable for a child to trust in those that raise her. So, when the child finally comes into contact with the larger world – say, as a teenager – the echo chamber’s worldview is firmly in place. That teenager will distrust all sources outside her echo chamber, and she will have gotten there by following normal procedures for trust and learning.
It certainly seems like our teenager is behaving reasonably. She could be going about her intellectual life in perfectly good faith. She might be intellectually voracious, seeking out new sources, investigating them, and evaluating them using what she already knows. She is not blindly trusting; she is proactively evaluating the credibility of other sources, using her own body of background beliefs. The worry is that she’s intellectually trapped. Her earnest attempts at intellectual investigation are lead astray by her upbringing and the social structure in which she is embedded.
For those who have not been raised within an echo chamber, perhaps it would take some significant intellectual vice to enter into one – perhaps intellectual laziness or a preference for security over truth. But even then, once the echo chamber’s belief system is in place, their future behaviour could be reasonable and they would still continue to be trapped. Echo chambers might function like addiction, under certain accounts. It might be irrational to become addicted, but all it takes is a momentary lapse – once you’re addicted, your internal landscape is sufficiently rearranged such that it’s rational to continue with your addiction. Similarly, all it takes to enter an echo chamber is a momentary lapse of intellectual vigilance. Once you’re in, the echo chamber’s belief systems function as a trap, making future acts of intellectual vigilance only reinforce the echo chamber’s worldview.
There is at least one possible escape route, however. Notice that the logic of the echo chamber depends on the order in which we encounter the evidence. An echo chamber can bring our teenager to discredit outside beliefs precisely because she encountered the echo chamber’s claims first. Imagine a counterpart to our teenager who was raised outside of the echo chamber and exposed to a wide range of beliefs. Our free-range counterpart would, when she encounters that same echo chamber, likely see its many flaws. In the end, both teenagers might eventually become exposed to all the same evidence and arguments. But they arrive at entirely different conclusions because of the order in which they received that evidence. Since our echo-chambered teenager encountered the echo chamber’s beliefs first, those beliefs will inform how she interprets all future evidence.