The myth of the echo chamber
“Information warfare” may be a top concern in the next Canadian election cycle, as a report on a workshop by CSIS suggests, but some fears about how people get their political information and the impact of social media are overstated.
In a recently published study, we show that fears about an “echo chamber” in which people encounter only information that confirms their existing political views are blown out of proportion. In fact, most people already have media habits that help them avoid echo chambers.
There is a common fear that people are using social media to access only specific types of political information and news. The echo chamber theory says people select information that conforms to their preferences.
A related theory about “filter bubbles” claims social media companies are incentivized to prioritize likeable and shareable content in an individual’s feed, which in turn puts people in an algorithmically constructed bubble.
The democratic problem with these supposed echo chambers and filter bubbles is that people are empowered to avoid politics if they want. This means they will be less aware of their political system, less informed and in turn less likely to vote — all bad signs for a healthy democracy.
People who like politics aren’t immune either. They might become increasingly polarized in their views since all they see are people confirming their own beliefs. While a lot of the current work is theoretical, a few studies have shown that echo chambers and filter bubbles could exist on Twitter or Facebook, for example.
People get information from many sources
But people don’t consume political information and news from only one source or channel.
Individuals have access to a wide range of media, from traditional news outlets on television, radio and newspapers (and their digital versions) to a wide range of social media sites and blogs. This means studies that focus on any one single platform simply cannot speak to the actual experiences of individuals.
We wanted to solve this problem by conducting a study examining the media habits of individuals. We wanted to understand what social media they use on a daily basis, what political information and news sources they incorporate in their daily lives, and whether they do things that might help them avoid echo chambers.
To do this we conducted a nationally representative online survey of 2,000 British adults. This is part of the larger Quello Search Project that examines the formation of political opinions and the digital media habits of adults in seven different countries. Unfortunately, no similar Canadian data set exists at present.
Our analysis suggests that people are rarely caught in echo chambers. Only about eight per cent of the online adults in Great Britain are at risk of being trapped in an echo chamber.
Individuals actively check additional sources, change their minds based on information they find using search engines and seek out differing views. All of these are ways individuals can avoid that echo chamber effect.
Importantly, political interest and media diversity — how many sources of information and how many social media a person uses — both help people avoid the threats of echo chambers.
People who have more than one source of political information are far more likely to act to avoid echo chambers.
They encounter different perspectives, they verify information and they sometimes change their minds. Even people who are not interested in politics are likely to do things that help them avoid echo chambers as long as they have a diverse media diet.
Fact-checking is crucial
Worries about political polarisation are also dampened based on these results.
We fret about polarisation, but in fact those who are politically interested are more likely to have encountered different opinions, checked facts and changed their minds about a political issue after searching for more information.
This means that most people are already on the right track for avoiding echo chambers. It also means that media literacy programs that emphasise incorporating multiple sources into your daily routines, and fact-checking, are crucial.
Social media platforms also have an important role to play.
Facebook and Twitter could still be home to communities that exchange information in a way that confirms existing beliefs and opinions. This is not necessarily a bad thing. It’s important to remember that people rarely get all their political information from just one place.
That said, social media companies can help promote media literacy in the very design of their platforms, for example by making sources of news content visible, explaining how their personalisation algorithms work and offering suggested content that helps users find new perspectives.
Happily, some of this experimentation is going on within social media companies already. Facebook has experimented by tinkering with what shows up in news feeds and how content is flagged as false. Twitter recently announced a program to examine the health of conversations. So far there have been varying levels of success and criticism.
While we do not have access to data about the Canadian population, preliminary results from our U.S. data set, and from work others have been doing in different national contexts and with different samples from the U.K.), suggests we should expect the same trends in Canada.
Most people have media habits that help them avoid echo chambers. When it comes to our elections, our democracy or information warfare, the threat of social media-enabled echo chambers is not a major concern.