True Story: Echo Chambers Are Not the Problem

It’s no secret that President Donald Trump is a fan of Fox News and a foe of CNN. In what is believed to be an unprecedented move, CNN’s Jim Acosta was banned from the White House after questioning Trump about whether he “demonized immigrants.”

A federal judge then ruled on Friday that the White House must reinstate Acosta’s press pass, after other news organizations sided with CNN on the lawsuit.

And reports last summer claim that he raged at staff members when his wife, Melania, was caught watching “fake news” CNN aboard Air Force One. Apparently, the matter was resolved only when Trump’s staff announced that it would be standard operating procedure to have all TVs tuned to Fox moving forward.

Word of this triggered what is now a familiar criticism of Trump — that he is carefully curating his consumption of news so that it includes information only from like-minded supporters. In doing so, he is said to be illegitimately reinforcing his own beliefs and sheltering himself from criticism. In other words, he is creating a dangerous echo chamber for himself.

There are two components to an echo chamber — first, there is an opinion that is repeated and reinforced, and second, this occurs in an enclosed system or “chamber,” such as a social network, allowing the opinion to “echo.” Dissenting voices are either absent or drowned out, and the original opinion is amplified through re-sharing.

Whether you read one or 1,000 copies of today’s news, the evidence you take in is exactly the same. You can’t increase the rationality or the reliability of your views by simply consulting multiple versions of the same source.

But this, we are told, is exactly what many Americans are doing on a daily basis.

A recent Pew Research Center study shows that 43 percent of U.S. adults get their news on Facebook, while 12 percent rely on Twitter. Facebook friends and Twitter feeds are typically chosen on the basis of personal and professional relations, and social media users tend to interact more with those who are like-minded, especially in political ideology.

Users then log on and see a number of “shares” of the same articles arguing for views they already hold. This creates the illusion of widespread support when, in fact, people are simply consulting multiple copies of the same virtual newspaper.

Echo chambers of this sort are said to be responsible for a host of today’s problems, including the degradation of democracy. By insulating themselves from opposing views, people are stunting their ability to engage in effective deliberation about the most pressing issues of our time.

In my research, however, I show that echo chambers are not in fact the culprit here, and a failure to appreciate this leads to dangerous consequences.

To see this, notice that echo chambers themselves are content-neutral. When I’m criticized for being in one, this raises an objection with how I’m taking in information, rather than with what I’m taking in. In other words, there is a structural problem with the way I’m living my life as a consumer of information. Because of this, so long as one is limited to a single source, the same exact criticism holds, regardless of whether it is Fox News or PBS.

But restricting our information sources is not objectionable by itself, and it can even have benefits.

For instance, if I consult one highly reliable media outlet on a regular basis, I’ll not only block out a lot of noise, I’ll also end up forming lots of true beliefs about critical issues. If I add other sources simply to avoid worries about the insulation of beliefs — without any regard for their reliability — I’ll end up out of an echo chamber, but far worse off as a knower.

For instance, if I learn about climate change from a reputable environmental scientist, there is only the danger of acquiring false beliefs in also consulting a climate change denier.  

Social media feeds are not analogous to reading multiple copies of the same newspapers. Assuming that our friends are posting articles because they approve of their content, each “share” does in fact bring along additional evidence.

Every one of us carries a wealth of unique experiences and a lifetime of cognitive labor. When the same article is shared by different people, I gain the benefit of its content having passed through their individual information filters. In this way, I come to learn that the news story has not been disconfirmed by their past experience and present judgment.

So, if the problem is not being in an echo chamber, what is it?

The real danger is not one of structure but of content: What is threatening democracy these days is an utter disregard for the truth.

PunditFact has provided a scorecard for the truth of statements made on-air by Fox News and its guests: They recently have rated only 10 percent as true. Recently, a former Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent claimed on Fox News that the “caravan” of asylum seekers from Central America is coming in with smallpox — a disease that was declared eradicated in 1980.

Despite this, a recent study shows that Fox News is the most “trusted” source of TV news in America.

And here is where the danger lies: Focusing our attention on echo chambers, rather than on truth, lends itself to a “we’re all in the same boat” attitude.

Trump reportedly watches only Fox News for his information on climate change, and another may read only the Journal of Applied Meteorology and Climatology. Both are in echo chambers and equally engaging in irresponsible intellectual behavior that is at odds with deliberative democracy. But this is an obviously false equivalence.

When I’m reading an article about the impact of climate change on wildlife, what is the benefit of clicking on a button to reveal the perspective of a climate change denier? Sure, I will be exposed to a different view, but at the expense of something even more fundamental to democracy: truth.  

Of course, being in an echo chamber of reverberating falsehoods is dangerous. But to identify the problem as involving an echo chamber — rather than lies and ignorance — is to put the epistemic cart before the horse.  

This matters because lies spread far faster, and more widely, than the truth does online.

In a recent study of rumor cascades between 2006 and 2017 on Twitter — which are unbroken retweet chains with a single common origin — false news cascades reached between 1,000 and 100,000 people, while the true ones rarely extended beyond 1,000 people. It also takes the truth about six times longer to reach 1,500 people than falsehoods do.

We don’t need to click on buttons to get opposing viewpoints on social media. We need to remind ourselves of what George Orwell told us long ago: “In times of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act.”


Jennifer Lackey is the Wayne and Elizabeth Jones Professor of Philosophy, the director of the Northwestern Prison Education Program at Northwestern University, and a public voices fellow with The OpEd Project.

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