#32 How do we get out of echo chambers (and why are they so dangerous?)


1.The wisdom function of Character depends upon seeing clearly through whatever biases we have. But this fascinating essay about the cult-like effects of "echo chambers" posits the road of misinformation ain't easy to abandon once you've been walking on in it for some time. Those warning us with facts and reason will be met with a punch in the nose, probably. Here's an excerpt that outlines this maddening and terrifying problem and our way forward. 

"Something has gone wrong with the flow of information. It’s not just that different people are drawing subtly different conclusions from the same evidence. It seems like different intellectual communities no longer share basic foundational beliefs. Maybe nobody cares about the truth anymore, as some have started to worry. Maybe political allegiance has replaced basic reasoning skills. Maybe we’ve all become trapped in echo chambers of our own making – wrapping ourselves in an intellectually impenetrable layer of likeminded friends and web pages and social media feeds."

But there are two very different phenomena at play here, each of which subvert the flow of information in very distinct ways. Let’s call them echo chambers and epistemic bubbles. Both are social structures that systematically exclude sources of information.

Both exaggerate their members’ confidence in their beliefs. But they work in entirely different ways, and they require very different modes of intervention.

An epistemic bubble is when you don’t hear people from the other side. (Luckily, though, epistemic bubbles are easily shattered. We can pop an epistemic bubble simply by exposing its members to the information and arguments that they’ve missed.) 

An echo chamber is what happens when you don’t trust people from the other side. (The echo chamber is much more pernicious and doesn’t need any bad connectivity to function. Rush Limbaugh’s followers have full access to outside sources of information. Limbaugh’s followers regularly read – but do not accept – mainstream and liberal news sources. They are isolated, not by selective exposure, but by changes in who they accept as authorities, experts and trusted sources. They hear, but dismiss, outside voices. Their worldview can survive exposure to those outside voices because their belief system has prepared them for such intellectual onslaught.)

Where an epistemic bubble merely omits contrary views, an echo chamber brings its members to actively distrust outsiders.

"Many people have claimed that we have entered an era of ‘post-truth’. Not only do some political figures seem to speak with a blatant disregard for the facts, but their supporters seem utterly unswayed by evidence. It seems, to some, that truth no longer matters.

This is an explanation in terms of total irrationality. To accept it, you must believe that a great number of people have lost all interest in evidence or investigation, and have fallen away from the ways of reason. The phenomenon of echo chambers offers a less damning and far more modest explanation. The apparent ‘post-truth’ attitude can be explained as the result of the manipulations of trust wrought by echo chambers. We don’t have to attribute a complete disinterest in facts, evidence or reason to explain the post-truth attitude. We simply have to attribute to certain communities a vastly divergent set of trusted authorities."


"Echo-chamber members are following reasonable and rational procedures of enquiry. They’re engaging in critical reasoning. They’re questioning, they’re evaluating sources for themselves, they’re assessing different pathways to information. They are critically examining those who claim expertise and trustworthiness, using what they already know about the world. It’s simply that their basis for evaluation – their background beliefs about whom to trust – are radically different. They are not irrational, but systematically misinformed about where to place their trust."

The way to break an echo chamber is not to wave “the facts” in the faces of its members. It is to attack the echo chamber at its root and repair that broken trust."

So trust, which can only be built in relationship, is a more powerful antidote to misinformation than any fact you can pull up in fancy charts and maps and figures. To those of you who truck in being right, I hope this insight will help you not lose your shit arguing with those who will not listen. The character of our democracy is at stake.

Don't not read this entire and essential article.


2. Because this essay above is so fucking good and important, and because y'all didn't click the above link like honorable citizens, here's what else you need to know about finding our way out:

"Think about our echo-chambered teenager. Every part of her belief system is tuned to reject the contrary testimony of outsiders. She has a reason, on each encounter, to dismiss any incoming contrary evidence. What’s more, if she decided to suspend any one of her particular beliefs and reconsider it on its own, then all her background beliefs would likely just reinstate the problematic belief. Our teenager would have to do something much more radical than simply reconsidering her beliefs one by one. She’d have to suspend all her beliefs at once, and restart the knowledge-gathering process, treating all sources as equally trustworthy. This is a massive undertaking; it is, perhaps, more than we could reasonably expect of anybody. It might also, to the philosophically inclined, sound awfully familiar. The escape route is a modified version of René Descartes’s infamous method.

Descartes suggested that we imagine an evil demon that was deceiving us about everything. He explains the meaning behind the methodology in the opening lines of the Meditations on First Philosophy (1641). He had come to realise that many of the beliefs he had acquired in his early life were false. But early beliefs lead to all sorts of other beliefs, and any early falsehoods he’d accepted had surely infected the rest of his belief system. He was worried that, if he discarded any one particular belief, the infection contained in the rest of his beliefs would simply reinstate more bad beliefs. The only solution, thought Descartes, was to throw all his beliefs away and start over again from scratch.

So the evil demon was just a bit of a heuristic – a thought experiment that would help him throw away all his beliefs. He could start over, trusting nothing and no one except those things that he could be entirely certain of, and stamping out those sneaky falsehoods once and for all. Let’s call this the Cartesian epistemic reboot. Notice how close Descartes’s problem is to our hapless teenager’s, and how useful the solution might be. Our teenager, like Descartes, has problematic beliefs acquired in early childhood. These beliefs have infected outwards, infesting that teenager’s whole belief system. Our teenager, too, needs to throw everything away, and start over again."

But that's not realistic. So:

"Let’s call the modernised version of Descartes’s methodology the social-epistemic reboot. In order to undo the effects of an echo chamber, the member should temporarily suspend all her beliefs – in particular whom and what she trusts – and start over again from scratch. But when she starts from scratch, we won’t demand that she trust only what she’s absolutely certain of, nor will we demand that she go it alone. For the social reboot, she can proceed, after throwing everything away, in an utterly mundane way – trusting her senses, trusting others. But she must begin afresh socially – she must reconsider all possible sources of information with a presumptively equanimous eye. She must take the posture of a cognitive newborn, open and equally trusting to all outside sources. In a sense, she’s been here before. In the social reboot, we’re not asking people to change their basic methods for learning about the world. They are permitted to trust, and trust freely. But after the social reboot, that trust will not be narrowly confined and deeply conditioned by the particular people they happened to be raised by.


The social reboot might seem rather fantastic, but it is not so unrealistic. Such a profound deep-cleanse of one’s whole belief system seems to be what’s actually required to escape. Look at the many stories of people leaving cults and echo chambers. Take, for example, the story of Derek Black in Florida  (<---link really worth reading)– raised by a neo-Nazi father, and groomed from childhood to be a neo-Nazi leader. Black left the movement by, basically, performing a social reboot. He completely abandoned everything he’d believed in, and spent years building a new belief system from scratch. He immersed himself broadly and open-mindedly in everything he’d missed – pop culture, Arabic literature, the mainstream media, rap – all with an overall attitude of generosity and trust. It was the project of years and a major act of self-reconstruction [CHARACTER BY DESIGN, Y'ALL!], but those extraordinary lengths might just be what’s actually required to undo the effects of an echo-chambered upbringing."

"Accounts of people leaving echo-chambered homophobia rarely involve them encountering some institutionally reported fact. Rather, they tend to revolve around personal encounters – a child, a family member, a close friend coming out. These encounters matter because a personal connection comes with a substantial store of trust.

Why is trust so important? Baier suggests one key facet: trust is unified. We don’t simply trust people as educated experts in a field – we rely on their goodwill. And this is why trust, rather than mere reliability, is the key concept. Reliability can be domain-specific. The fact, for example, that somebody is a reliable mechanic sheds no light on whether or not their political or economic beliefs are worth anything. But goodwill is a general feature of a person’s character. If I demonstrate goodwill in action, then you have some reason to think that I also have goodwill in matters of thought and knowledge. So if one can demonstrate goodwill to an echo-chambered member – as Stevenson did with Black – then perhaps one can start to pierce that echo chamber."