THE MYTH OF THE “ECHO CHAMBER”

Reactionaries of all kinds often like to dismiss political discussions on social media as an “Echo Chamber”. By this they mean that a bunch of left wing types huddle together on message boards and congratulate each other on how progressive they are, then come away thinking everyone in the world is as radical as them.

I hadn’t heard the phrase for a while but it made a comeback over the weekend when supporters of Jeremy Corbyn launched a successful Twitter Storm based around #wearehismedia, to flag up old media anti-Corbyn bias. Shocked Blairites hastened to neutralise the gambit by rolling out the “Echo Chamber” defence. We even saw a variation of this critique from Owen Jones, who responded to the Storm by asking “if Twitter is so influential, how come the Tories won the last election?”

How valid is the “Echo Chamber” concept?

In my opinion, not very. In fact the internet is the very opposite of an Echo Chamber. It puts an end once and for all to “Echo Chamber” discussions.

Ironically it is conservatives’ discomfort at this very fact which leads them to try and invalidate it.

It’s actually in the offline world where people only tend to talk to people who share their views. Not only their views but their background, lifestyle and outlook. Most people offline talk politics in the pub or at home with their friends and family. Such people are going to have roughly the same views as them.

They might get a bit of political chat at work, but this is unlikely to go into much detail. What’s more, any differences that are expressed are likely to be within the narrow confines of the two party framework.

This is why you often hear right wingers say things like “unless Labour gets tough on immigration it will never be elected again”. They mainly hang around with people who don’t like immigration so assume that the whole country dislikes it.

The very opposite dynamic operates on the internet. You are likely to be exposed to people of very divergent views, even views that, to you, might seem taboo. Yes it is (probably) true that a majority hang out with like-minded people online as well but even so the integration of diverse people is bound to be more common than offline. You might have people on your follow/friend list for non-political reasons who start posting political stuff, you might stumble across discussions via Google searches. You might even deliberately seek out message boards with opposing readerships out of curiosity, or because you want to mock them or show them the error of their ways. If you do want to do that it is only a mouse click and a matter of seconds before you get there.

As well as this ease of access to diverse people the internet also allows for a lot more eloquent and in-depth discussion than is possible face to face. The discussion online is not so rushed, you can make your points as often as you want to, re-word them if you misfired the first time, and psychological debating tricks are harder to perpetrate and easier to spot and redress. Social Media are also a relatively safe space in which to conduct discussions — it is more difficult to silence someone online by shouting them down or mocking them.

So, when reactionaries explore politics online it can be a shock to (a) find that not everyone shares their worldview (b) find that their treasured collection of stock arguments and truisms can be easily beaten and (c) there are arguments and angles out there that they had absolutely no concept of.

Uncomfortable with this, they hurry to dismiss the internet as an “Echo Chamber” when it is in fact the precise opposite.

What of the other side of the coin, the Old Media? In a subsequent article will examine Owen Jones’ claim that the Old Media is where the action is really at when it comes to getting your message across.

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