Tut-tutting about filter bubbles & echochambers misses the point

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Shadow of Trump over the earth

[CN:Trump] One of the narratives that’s emerged from Trump’s victory is that “we” anti-Trumpers have been living in a “filter bubble” or “echochamber”. In the standard white liberal pundit narrative (which I shat on in the previous post), social media means we only see things we agree with which has led to where we are now. While this narrative has a grain of truth, the way it’s been discussed has been misleading and simplistic.

Yes humans are tribal creatures — all of us, regardless of our politics. We’re subject to biases that distort our picture about the world. We will be much more gullible when a news/opinion piece fits with our political worldview than when it goes against it. And yes, the fact that more and more people are relying on social media for the news (combined with how shit a job social media’s been doing at quality control) means that most of the pieces we’ll see are ones tailored to “our” ideological side.

The problem is this paints a very simplistic view of what’s actually going on. The “fake news” idea is also guilty of this. It conjures up a binary of real vs fake news, just like the echochamber idea conjures up a binary of people who listen to “opposing views” vs those who don’t. In reality the information we consume falls on a continuum as explained in detail by this excellent post by Steve Novella and this post by Stephanie Zvan. If we want to think about things more accurately, we should at least expand the simplification to three axes (as implied by Novella’s post):

  1. Whether the source aims to present facts (ie. “news”) or values (ie. “opinion”).
  2. Where on the political spectrum the source falls (yes, that’s more complex than a single axis but 3 dimensions are enough for now).
  3. The degree to which a source is biased.

These can be fairly independent, except the fact that as sources fall closer to the opinion end or further along one point in the political spectrum they’re less likely to be unbiased.

The way we should treat the idea of echochamber depends mostly about which axes people are talking about, this has been the problem.

Breaking out of the facts echochamber

If we’re talking about facts, we want our information to be as varied as possible, so we find out what’s what’s actually happening. To fulfill this, we should probably be expanding our media diet regardless of what else we read. However, were there important facts that we’d have been missing by not reading more from the pro-Trump side? The conservative side has for years been at war against the very notion of expertise which as we’ve seen has become a war on the idea of facts themselves. A “both sides do it” approach suggests that the filter bubble is equally serious on both sides. This is an egregious case of false balance.

Instead, what you would have missed out on is conspiracies like Pizzagate. So if you lost anything of value it was probably from not following enough from international journalism — which might well have been far more anti-Trump than your “echochamber”.

An interesting counter-example is the data analysis on polarisation in social media discussion of the 2014 Israel-Gaza conflict. Below is a chart you may have seen, the follower relationship between Twitter accounts that discussed the IDF’s bombing of a UNRWA school:

In this case it really does seem likely that there are two echochambers. Depending on where you are, you’re missing out on hearing important facts that you should probably be using to inform your position on the Gaza war etc. As Gilad Lotan notes, “[n]one of the information shared is false per se, yet users make deliberate choices about what they choose to amplify”.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict may be a case where you do have to go out to seek more facts. It’s actually the more typical case because there are different sides both using different evidence to construct competing narratives.

This is what makes Trump’s election so different — and scary. One side is deliberately eschewing the “different evidence” part and proceeding straight to the “competing narrative” part.

Breaking out of the values/opinion echochamber

What about expanding the range of opinions you read (something pretty different to the facts scale and misleading when conflated)? Well that might seem like a worthy goal — but mainly in the abstract. If you get down to the details it’s more problematic, as we can see by the Guardian recently call to action: So you want to get out of your bubble: try reading these conservative websites. Without necessarily meaning to, they highlight the issue with that idea:

The first thing to say is that it’s still possible to be selective. No one really needs to listen to Alex Jones for four hours a day, and some conservative sites really are nests of unreconstructed conspiracy theory and bigotry. And it’s also permissible to approach rightwing sites critically, knowing there are certain arguments, and certain writers, that we will never agree with. In fact, it might be the chance to sharpen our own arguments as we encounter things we can’t stomach.

In the end the websites they picked: Reason.com, The American Conservative, America Magazine and The Tablet. Now I would agree that there might be some genuine value in some of the content on some of those websites. But that’s the whole point: it’s an incredibly narrow shortlist of websites presenting opinions that aren’t completely horrible and even then the Guardian points out major caveats (eg. Reason.com, funded by the Koch brothers and promotes denialism about big oil/smoking).

So even an earnest attempt to add opinions from modern US conservatism to your diet is in serious trouble if you have a basic ethical filter in place on what media you consume.

As pointed out numerous times, it’s perfectly fine to consider some moral debates as closed. No there’s no need to rehash people’s humanity for the umpteenth time. If someone’s opinion is that me and my family are some soulless golem, the only reason I need to know about this is for the info about fighting back. There’s no value lost in not engaging with this.

It’s here that I recommend Lindy West’s article Give me my goddamn echo chamber already: “If by ‘echo chamber’ you mean ‘a space online where I can communicate in good faith with informed people who don’t derail every conversation with false equivalencies and rape threats,’ then yes, I’m dying for a fucking echo chamber.”


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