How Crossing Communities Can Help You Break out of Your Online Echo Chamber

4 April 2019
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Photo by Etienne Boulanger

By Kelly Herbison, Triple R volunteer writer

In the midst of online battlegrounds, where wounds are 240 characters deep and no shield is more effective than flawless grammar, few criticisms are more fatal than telling your opponent that they’re living in an echo chamber. When we wield this claim, we’re saying that someone is embedded in an insular system of beliefs, that they are immune to truth and reason.

Finding your news from three different sources is the new five fruit and veg a day, but hitting your intake isn’t as easy as coming home and making a fancy salad. Echo chambers are ubiquitous in a time when an increasing amount of our interactions take place on platforms that are governed by algorithms. Articles that surface on my feed are emblazoned with words that are likely to capture my attention, while things that are unlikely to earn my four second online attention span are kept aside.

Echo chambers are difficult to detect because, unlike the ‘chamber’ part of the term might suggest, they don’t always take the form of a physically isolated group. We can find ourselves in an echo chamber and isolated from the influence of outside voices even when we live in diverse and democratic societies. This is because a feature of echo chambers is that they gain strength by undermining the credibility of alternative information. Voices inside a chamber will echo loudly when those on the outside are framed as unreasonable and untrustworthy. In this way, an abundance of outside voices will actually fuel a well-functioning echo chamber.

While obscuring outside sources can be symptomatic of an echo chamber, it’s worth mentioning that sometimes groups have good reasons to shut themselves off from outsiders. For instance, when a number of individuals who suffer injustices in mainstream society decide to form a support group together, they may want to maintain strict criteria for membership. After all, when people who suffer an injustice want to discuss how it has impacted them, it seems unfair to say that they can only do so when they include the people who caused them to suffer the injustice in the first place.

When an old school acquaintance shares offensive content, that glitchy surge of fury twinges my finger towards the unfriend button. I know full well that this won’t change his mind or deal with the content that struck me as so problematic. But I don’t feel like explaining myself to him, and sometimes that’s okay, too. So, at what point should I leave the cushy affirmations of my community and cross into ones that aren’t of obvious benefit to me? If my group maintains its authority by discrediting the reliability of outside voices, then I have good reason to diversify where I’m sourcing my knowledge. One way that I could do this is to cross into different communities.

Crossing communities doesn’t mean that I’m required to gear up for a debate each time a situation like the offensive acquaintance arises. It does, however, mean that I should try to use instances like that one as a reminder to revise my beliefs and why they differ from that person’s.

If you recall the idea that echo chambers can take effect when we’re immersed in a diverse society, then you may be thinking, ‘what good will crossing communities have?’ For one thing, it seems that when we interact with people who aren’t of obvious similarity to us, we need to communicate in a way that doesn’t assume shared understanding or meaning. Finding a synonym or different way of phrasing something may seem like a pretty miniscule attempt to challenge something as powerful as an echo chamber. However, when we revise our default understanding something, we re-trace our path of reasoning that lead to our understanding. If we do this sort of thing enough, we can become more critical of how our beliefs hang together and, hopefully, more open to altering them, because being intellectually agile lessens our likelihood of slipping back into the immovable grooves of thought that echo chambers rely on us having.

Additionally, crossing communities is a good way to combat echo chambers because the individualistic alternative – that we become hyper rational and less trusting of all communities – is highly unlikely and unappealing. It is unlikely because we rely on others for acquiring knowledge and, well, surviving. It is unappealing because, as mentioned earlier, group membership comes with a number of perks.

Diversifying sources of knowledge is one way to combat the impact of echo chambers. So next time you’re looking for some affirmation and support, preach to your choir, but make sure you check the acoustics for reverb first.

If you’re interested in the other effects that crossing communities has, you can check out this interview with Hugh McKay on The Grapevine, where he talks about his empirical findings on the benefits of crossing communities.

Kelly Herbison studies philosophy at Melbourne University and is interested in the impact that social relations have on how we acquire, share and produce knowledge. She was recently awarded the University’s Brenda Judge Prize for her paper on gender bias in philosophy. She is also a committee member of the Minorities and Philosophy chapter at Melbourne University, and co-editor for ‘Thoughts’ at local zine VERVE, where you can find some of her other writing.