In music and sound, an echo chamber is an enclosed space that produces reverberations of sound, with a single noise echoing until it’s fully absorbed by the chamber. In social media it has a similar meaning: a confined space within which your thoughts and opinions are echoed by a similar group of people. The result of this is a ‘bubble’ where opinions are reinforced without deeper thought or constructive criticism. The concept of the social media echo chamber is a relatively new phenomenon in the online world, but for a long time it has existed in traditional media. In the UK, the top-two bestselling newspapers are the Daily Mail and The Sun. With outlandish headlines like “NHS ‘being stretched to the limit by refugees’”, could these papers simply be reflecting the opinions of readers, forming their own kind of echo chambers?
The literature suggests echo chambers exist at least within certain social networks. A large scale 2015 study analysed nearly 600,000 tweets on the topic of climate change and found that the majority of people with a certain view interacted only with others holding the same view, with the study calling these spaces of interaction “echo chambers”. A minority opted to interact with people with contradicting views, in “open forums”.
However, here is academic disagreement about whether internet users themselves are broadly trapped in echo chambers. In 2016 a study was published analysing the browsing history of 50,000 individuals from America. It was found that the information found by the user is often opposing to their own views. Furthermore, in a survey it was found that only 17% of views seen by a user on Twitter aligned with their own and 39% were their opposing. In 2018, a study done by the University of Oxford found that only a very small minority actually find themselves in echo chambers, due to most social media users having more than one social media account. Interestingly however, other studies have also determined that, whilst most people are less prone to find themselves in echo chambers, depending on their activity online, those that try to be bipartisan (agreeing on both sides) can be affected by having a smaller appreciation in likes, retweets and favourites.
Over the last three months I have been browsing the controversial reddit subforum r/The_Donald. This is where people discuss a range topics about the current climate of the USA and give support to President Trump. People can post links, images, videos and thoughts. With over 675,000 subscribers, the forum leans very far to the right-wing of the political spectrum, and many discussions can be derogatory and unreflective of the policies of the Republican party. There are no views from the opposing side to facilitate discussion and when something that doesn’t align with the views get posted, it quickly gets a lot of criticism and is usually deleted. This is a prime example of an echo chamber that reinforces only single viewpoints without criticism.
In truth we probably all live in a social media echo chamber to some extent. However, the vast majority of responsibility comes down to us as an individual. It is whether or not we choose to explore other options or not. Sites like Google and Facebook have created algorithms that tailors news and search results towards an individual’s own views from the data these companies collect. These social networks will tailor the things you see depending on your interactions i.e. if you seek out other viewpoints, you might break out of your echo chamber. It is actually very interesting to explore multiple viewpoints. We have the choice and the power to make our own decisions. As Steve Jobs once said, “Don’t let the voice of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice.”