I have been arguing that all attempts to control misinformation in social media will only result in pushing people out into alternative communities for a few years now. Regardless of how accurately or objectively Facebook, Google, Twitter or anyone else attempts to only screen out objectively untrue webpages, inevitably people will feel censored, controlled or otherwise ostracised by that community/platform.
Last night I was listening to a recent episode of Bitcoin Uncensored and discovered Gab, a “free speech social network” according to Breitbart, or “The Alt-Right’s very own Twitter” according to Wired.
The founder of Gab explained in the interview that the community is open to everyone, and being that there are a growing number of people “fed up with the far-left agenda being pushed in their face no matter where they go on the Internet” and so “it’s natural that we’re going to attract the folks that are being shut-up on other platforms. It’s natural that we’re going to attract the folks that don’t feel welcome on other platforms, or that don’t feel like their values are being accurately expressed or depicted across other platforms.”
As I mentioned in my brain dump post last week, when people start picking and choosing platforms the way we have always chosen our media sources, that is when we begin building real echo chambers. Echo chambers which sort the entire global population into ideological belief systems, and genuinely blocks all hope of being exposed to alternative perspectives.
Every platform claims to be open to everyone, but Fox News claimed to be Fair and Balanced, so you have to take that stuff with a grain of salt. So when any semblance of a bias is present in a community, certain groups will feel ostracised and will move to other communities which feel closer to them. As clearly demonstrated in the case of Gab here.
Unlike the current ‘echo chamber’ criticisms of social media though, the echo chambers we currently build for ourselves still exist in a wider community setting. Google really is still used by virtually everyone — and likely will continue to be as long as they don’t start punishing websites which favour one world view over another (even if that world-view is “based on reality”). Facebook is still the most dominant social network by a long shot. And so while our news feed are predominantly filled with the stuff we want to see (and thus agree with etc), we do still have the opportunity to see the posts by people we disagree with. They are still in the same community space.
Move all of those people into another eco-system entirely though… and that is a different story.
Divide and Conquer
We didn’t talk about echo chambers so much in the past because they were so all-encompassing that we didn’t know there were dissenting opinions to be considered on most issues. Everyone agreed about the important stuff!
Since the Internet though, we have finally broken out of our geographic, cultural and political bubbles and been shown the million different ways things are done around the world. And this has been quite terrifying for a lot of people. The desire to shut those people out of their experience of the world is quite understandable.
However, if we allow people to organise themselves into disconnected online ecosystems along the lines of ideological divides, we risk re-entering the old fashion world where echo-chambers seem to disappear because we literally stop seeing the ‘others’ that make us aware of the fact that *they* (always them, never us) are in echo chambers! Ta da! Echo chamber problem fixed!
The key difference though, is that the modern form of the steel-concrete-reinforced-echo-chambers which we can barely see out of is that it is organised along ideological lines only, and geographic location, cultural traditions and political options are ignored by the echo chamber. Thus we can end up hating our neighbours just as strongly as the average American used to hate the average Russian. We are in real danger of destroying our societies from the inside out as we thoroughly ‘other-ize’ people all around us, destroying any connection or common ground with people we still have to actually live and work (and vote) with.
Being in a geo-political echo chamber actually makes some sense. A mass delusion which creates social cohesion can be incredibly effective at generating progress and prosperity (see Watchmen for example). But if geo-political lines are destroyed by ideological echo-chambers which transcend geography, then we will all end up permanently at war with the very people we are meant to work with.
I guess this is an interesting way to move past geo-political wars. The true globalisation of hate. The ability to hate thy neighbour as thoroughly as we hate our geo-political enemies.
Resisting Global Ideological Echo Chambers
It is an interesting phenomenon to watch play out in front of our very eyes. I wonder whether we will ever be able to respond to the threat in a way which turns in into our benefit, rather than simply stumbling into the trap and creating these ideological echo chambers that categorise and divide us.
My key insight remains the same. Do NOT try to control information, even on the basis of truth vs lies or error. But definitely DO build a socratic-style self-critical layer on the web which ensures all internet users are always exposed to the best available critique of any webpage or claim they read. Don’t focus on only fact checking misinformation and ‘fake news’, which is what everyone seems to be focused on, but instead guarantee that all claims and positions are open to the same degree of critical analysis. Regardless of whether they are perceived as true or not.
With such a system in place all of these digital echo chambers will have figurative sound-dampening material installed in them. They will still exist. People will still be people and they will continue to obey the laws of confirmation bias. But at least high quality valid criticism of everything they see will always be just a simple click away.