Heather Heyer. This is a name you may or may not remember. Heather was a 32-year-old paralegal from Virginia. She had a job. She had friends. She had a life. That life was taken from her on August 12, 2017, in Charlottesville, Virginia while protesting a white nationalist rally. I guess that’s where we are today. A world where you can be killed protesting a white supremacy rally. Where you can go from walking one minute to being run over by an automobile in the next. And while there has only been one small white supremacy rally since then, one could argue the divide in this country has only gotten worse; people on all sides digging into their foxholes and holding their positions. Unrelenting, and unwilling to hear anybody else’s side. I, for one, think a main culprit for these staunch opinions are echo chambers. And I believe echo chambers helped lead to the terrible events in Charlottesville. We need to be aware of how to prevent that in the future.
Before we get to the specifics of Charlottesville on that day, we should first go over echo chambers. According to Wikipedia, an echo chamber, “is a metaphorical description of a situation in which beliefs are amplified or reinforced by communication and repetition inside a closed system.” So, in relation to social media. Say you have a Facebook account and you just watched the Blackfish documentary on Sea World. You are upset and make one or two posts that are anti-Sea World. Now, seemingly out of nowhere, you notice Facebook statuses and group notifications of people who are also anti-Sea World. Some even more against it than you. Within a few months, your newsfeed is littered with all these people who think like you. And, on Twitter, all the tweets your shown are from people you don’t even know who align with your school of thought. That leads you down a spiral of thinking that all (or at least the majority) of people think like you because that is all you see. That is an echo chamber.
Now, like the idea that all people are different, not all people have the same philosophy about what they want on their social media. According to an article entitled The Daily Me, “…many people do like echo chambers, and they very much want to live in them. Many other people dislike echo chambers; they are curious, even intensely so, and they want to learn about all sorts of topics and many points of view” (pg. 5). The danger emanates from those that live and thrive in the echo chambers. People who insulate themselves from the rest of society. Even if it is just on social media. Most people don’t think their opinion is the only one that matters. If they do, they have bigger problems. However, if their opinion is reworded and regurgitated from somebody else’s mouth, they have a reason to think they are right.
The argument against echo chambers is clear. A combination of algorithms and personal choices allow us to focus on content that confirms our beliefs. On social media we huddle with those most like us, using our Twitter and Facebook feeds to preach to that confirms our beliefs. On social media we huddle with those most like us, using our Twitter and Facebook feeds to preach to the converted. – In Praise of Echo Chambers – Emily Parker, pg. 1
If your thinking echo chambers sound a lot like confirmation bias, that’s because it does. You agreeing with other versions of you does not create a majority opinion. It’s particularly hard if you don’t even see it happening. And, honestly, most people don’t. People get too wrapped up in themselves and their own opinion. They just believe that the majority of people are thinking what they’re thinking. Then, somewhere down the line, likes and retweets lead to marches and Nazi flags. Social media pages turn into active alt-right gatherings. I believe that is exactly what to the marchers on Charlottesville.
The events of Charlottesville were set into motion when confederate statues began being removed throughout the country. A statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee at Emancipation Park was one of those statues whose standing was in question. With that, a rally was born. Unite the Right Rally. This rally consisted of self-described, “alt-right, neo-Confederates, neo-fascists, white nationalists, neo-Nazis, Klansmen, and various militias” (Wikipedia). These men felt so strongly about the non-removal of that statue, they felt compelled to chant pro-white hate slogans while marching down the street into the park. With those protestors drew counter-protestors. Those in opposition to white supremacy and injustice. As you could imagine, it was only a matter of time before words turned to violence. The worst of which was James Fields Jr. driving his car through the counter-protestors injuring 40 plus and killing Heather.
Living in an echo chamber is not ideal. In fact, it can be downright scary if you think about it. However, that is still only a virtual world. You may be posting unabashed opinions and “liking” others, but that doesn’t always translate into marching in an alt-right pro-confederate rally. But according to the Time.com article American Hate, A History by Jon Meacham, the opportunity is available. The article comments, “Now freshly emboldened, [Charlottesville] organizers are planning demonstrations in Boston and San Francisco, and in the South the sheer number of Confederate memorials offer white nationalists a target-rich environment.” (2017). So, how does one reach the other?
For one, and I touched on this earlier, is confirmation bias. According to Dr. Shahram Heshmat on PsychologyToday.com, “Confirmation bias occurs from the direct influence of desire on beliefs. When people would like a certain idea/concept to be true, they end up believing it to be true. They are motivated by wishful thinking. This error leads the individual to stop gathering information when the evidence gathered so far confirms the views (prejudices) one would like to be true.” When you already think you are right, the echo chamber will only enhance that. Instead of being provided opinions from both sides, your social network will only show you articles and opinions to further substantiate your point; which will make you think that everybody thinks like you. Even if it is just a small portion of the general population, you could have a skewed reality of how many people believe what you believe. And when the one or two opposite opinions appear on your timeline, you automatically think they are wrong and the outsider opinion. Social media is a great way to join up with like-minded individuals. And when the mind is focused on hate, it may only take a few connections to be put in touch with a person or organization that wants you to work for them in the real world.
What if the tweets or posts you are “liking” are not from real people. The social media bots that are pushing information at you make it even harder to discern real opinions from those that are computer generated. According to an article by Emilio Ferrara entitled The Rise of Social Bots, “Our vulnerability makes it possible for a bot to acquire significant influence, even unintentionally” (2016, pg. 99). Sometimes, it doesn’t matter who or what agrees with you, just that you think you right. These bots only enhance the echo chambers and create this delusion that more people share your opinion than really do. Social media sites do their best to limit and disable these bots, but they can’t catch all of them.
But would that really make a difference? Would a message that looks like it came from a bot account stop you from retweeting or liking that post? Would you even care if the opinion provided mirrors your own? Petter Törnberg’s article, Echo chambers and viral misinformation: Modeling fake news as complex contagion states, “…echo chambers make fake news more viral since information that resonates with biased clusters of users has a higher likelihood to spread through a network” (2018, pg. 3). Bots are a huge part of the problem. Bot accounts have the ability to disseminate a message incredibly quickly. They are also able to do that a thousand times over in a matter of minutes. Even if the bot isn’t real, that “fake” message can touch more real people just based on sheer volume. So now “fake” messages are bringing together real people, all with a skewed version of the world.
In reality, you need to think for yourself. Nobody is going to do it for you. You need to understand that your opinion may not be correct and stop to think if your opinion is even morally sound. Be aware that not all online articles are created equal, and the internet is filled with just as many lies as there are truths. Charlottesville was a deadly example of what happens when lost, fearful, uneducated souls are told by social media their opinion is the only one that matters. Echo chambers can be a breeding ground for a dangerous outcome, and we need to make people aware of that possibility.
And, when all else fails. Just talk to people. Real people, face to face. People who look like you, people who look nothing like you, and everyone in between. We get so caught up in our online community we forget that there are people behind these profile pictures. And for as many people who post a subject, there are just as many who don’t. Talk to them too. So, when in doubt, just open your door and go outside. Chances are you won’t run into any echo chambers or bots out there. At least not today. Tomorrow, who knows.
Ferrara, E., Varol, O., Davis, C., Menczer, F., & Flammini, A. (2016). The Rise of Social Bots. The Rise of Social Bots, 59(7), 96-104. doi:10.1145/2818717
Heshmad, S., Ph.D. (2015, April 23). What Is Confirmation Bias? Retrieved February 22, 2019, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/science-choice/201504/what-is-co…
Meacham, J., & Abrams, A. (2017). American Hate, a History. TIME, 190(8), 36-41. Retrieved February 22, 2019.
Parker, E. (2017, May 22). In praise of echo chambers. The Washington Post. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/democracy-post/wp/2017/05/22/in-prai…
Sunstein, C. R. (2017). #Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media. New Jersey, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Törnberg, P. (2018). Echo chambers and viral misinformation: Modeling fake news as complex contagion. Plos One, 13(9), 1-21. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0203958
Echo chamber (media). (2019, February 05). Retrieved March 1, 2019, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Echo_chamber_(media)
Unite the Right rally. (2019, March 01). Retrieved February 22, 2019, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Unite_the_Right_rally
(picture – property of article author)
Lenz, T. D. (2019, March 7). Mirror Images [Example of Echo Chambers]. Retrieved March 7, 2019.