Provocations, Web Dynamics & Echo Chambers: An Interview with Alice Thwaite

Max Gorynski
Apr 22, 2020 · 15 min read

There will come a time when Alice Thwaite will need no introduction.

One of Europe’s leading tech ethicists, and the founder and editor of the Echo Chamber Club, Thwaite has worked her way up into a position of prominence in continental and indeed global discussions of web dynamics, data ethics, the nature of echo chambers, and how exactly we might go about securing the future of pluralism in a web culture that is in seemingly unending petty conflict.

Thwaite is a frequent speaker on the topics of internet ethics and information access in a digital age, at events large and small worldwide. She has been a guest on BBC and Al-Jazeera. When she isn’t chairing provocations with the ECC, she can be found writing for the likes of Tortoise Media, Quartz and politics.co.uk. She joined us on a damp Newspeak House terrace in February of 2020 to talk about her work with the Echo Chamber Club, her philosophy of agonistic disagreement, and how the changes we’re dealing with neither have come from, nor will be solved only by, technology.

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Echo Chambers & Democracy

Max — Alice, for the sake of our readers who may not necessarily have encountered it yet, tell us a little bit about the Echo Chamber Club, and what you’ve been working on lately.

Alice — The Echo Chamber Club officially started in 2016 as a newsletter to help my peers, which I called ‘liberal and progressive metropolitans’ access points of view which they weren’t’ necessarily seeing on their social feeds and on the front page of their preferred publisher’s sites. Every week, I would research a story which either wasn’t getting much attention, or where the analysis we saw was particularly one sided, and I tried to show a different perspective. That version of the ECC existed for 18 months up until the beginning of 2018. The work was too emotionally exhausting, and I was having doubts about the theoretical underpinnings of echo chambers too, plus I was half way through a very time-consuming and draining masters at the Oxford Internet Institute.

But what I did realise is that a lot of the manifestations of the digital that we discuss in mainstream and popular discourse rests on some fairly shaky philosophical thought processes. Theory is an incredibly important part of understanding society, and it was completely missing from civil society. So, I now call the Echo Chamber Club a “philosophical institute”…d’you like that?

Max — I love that, right up my street.

Alice — …a philosophical institute to understand what makes information environments healthy and democratic. That’s quite all-encompassing, but generally in democracies one can’t be present at all political events, so experiences will naturally be mediated. There are a lot of criteria put in by democratic theorists — the one I like the most is by Robert Dahl, about the different democratic processes that have to exist around effective participation, setting the agenda etc. Obviously everyone talks in democracies about “one person, one vote”, but there are a lot of criteria around what an information environment has to look like.

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An Echo Chamber Club event, convened at London’s Newspeak House

Democracy is such a contested idea, and naturally it has to be contested — the general idea has to necessarily be vague, however, there are specific theories within this vague idea which are well shaped and focused. I don’t think a lot of thought has been put into what makes information environments in this particular digital era democratic in various specific senses. There are a lot of people who are very dogmatic about what democracy means; you’ve seen that on a very small-level, in the sense of the acceptance-or-not of the [Brexit] referendum result, but I also think I see it today in, for instance, people thinking that deliberation is a natural part of democracy, without even questioning that. There’s no recognition in that that deliberative democracy[1] is in itself a theory just as much as liberal democracy[2] is a theory, or republican democracy[3] is a theory. We take parts from all the different types of democracy in our idea of what democracy is, but if you take one of these types as primary, it leads to very different practices.

I’m a fan of something called agonism, and that’s what the Echo Chamber Club is: it came from a long activist-research project that started in 2016, and finished in 2018, which concerned “How do I get members of my peer group to read other points of view?” Through that I realised that the entire theory I based that on was completely flawed. So, now I’ve gone back to the basics of the theory — using the philosophical method to think about key issues in tech and society.

Max — How did you come to the understanding that the original theory that underpinned the Echo Chamber club was flawed?

Alice — I don’t think that there was a eureka moment as such. The more I read about echo chambers, the more I realised that the theoretical underpinnings of echo chambers weren’t what I initially thought they were.

I think quite often in all honesty, when you’re not a specialist in something, you’ll [come across] something, a theory, and it’ll resonate with something that you ‘know’ to be true. And instead of listening or considering what that theory actually is saying, you just assume, when you’re at that beginning, exploratory stage, that what that theory is saying is what you think it’s saying.

Becoming a specialist means that you can integrate yourself with the intricacies of different positions, different facets of the debate and ways they are expressed.

So I actually think that the realisation that the original idea wasn’t right wasn’t really about me changing my view on it, but rather I realised slowly that what the conception was as it was laid out, was not my [original] conception. Then I found things that backed up my original conception, though this new stuff then changed my conception; it’s all malleable.

I do find that this happens quite often, (you might’ve experienced it as well); when I go up on to stage to talk about something, let’s say polarisation and the media, and you talk about the lack of evidence for social media induced polarisation in the strictest sense, and more research needs to go towards ‘how can we be different and still get along’… and you come offstage and someone comes up to you and says: “That was brilliant, I now realise Facebook is causing polarisation and ruining democracy!!”

And you go “That’s not what I said at all.”

Max — Yeah, it’s a fascinating study in confirmation bias in a lot of such cases. Particularly with things that have a political resonance that’s of-that-moment, you find a lot of people carry an excess of baggage into the room with them. You do have to be extraordinarily careful not to allow people to use [those preconceived notions], and even in the instance that you do have best-laid-plans [sometimes they still will use them]. It’s a question, I think, of repeated exposure to a given idea, in most cases.

Alice — I also think [being able to convince people of new ideas] comes from being able to tag on to other theoretical concepts that people are familiar with. That’s why it’s so hard if you’re not a specialist, if you don’t know the landscape around your subject.

Schools of Democracy

Max — Out of those three types of democracy you mentioned, do you think web dynamics are particularly tailored to suit one of them, if any?

Alice — Well, interestingly I think web dynamics are entirely based around the pure conception of democracy, which you might then call populism.

Max — That’s going to make such a good pull-quote.

Alice — Ha-ha!

…but you know, when people talk about the anti-democratic component, and the idea that technology is anti-democratic, you can only say “Well, actually, a lot of technology is in many ways incredibly democratic.” You only have one like per account, one opinion, freedom of choice to participate or not; but, web dynamics are not based on thinking about things like the tyranny of the majority. It’s based on a limited, pseudo-Silicon-Valley, I-don’t-need-to-read-academic-papers-to-understand-them mentality, which runs through the whole of Twitter, Facebook, Reddit.

Max — And I think it’s begun to percolate well beyond that. That at-once dismissive and proprietary tone adopted on social media whenever people are handling knowledge, you can see that beginning to appear on TV as well; not only do you find this attitude in programs that are supposed to take learned-enough approaches to serious subject, but this derisory attitude is actually bandied about as, so it seems, some enlightened mark of a more democratic type of intellectualism.

Alice — Right! And when I talk about pure democracy, that’s not ‘pure’ as a value judgement by the way. There is no ‘pure’ democracy; it’s the kind of ‘pure’ democracy a child might make up if you just gave them that one very basic principle.

Max — The crudest possible form of the concept.

Alice — Yes, exactly. Or at least one of the crudest possible forms of the concept.

‘Everybody Do the Agonistic Disagreement!’

Max — Let’s talk a little bit more about that principle of agonistic disagreement, and your ‘refitting’ of it.

Alice — Well, agonism starts with a discourse theory, whereas the other three theories [of democracy, which we’ve looked at] start with a normative statement. A discourse theory is not necessarily objective, but it tries to be a description of the world, and indeed that’s how Chantal Mouffe started with it. She created the discourse theory and tried to imagine a type of democracy that would work with it; she definitely did it that way round.

The discourse theory goes into the different languages that people have, the way we use language, and takes a post-structuralist approach to it in saying: there is no way that in the world right now we have all the words necessary to describe all the things we’d ever think of. There’s so much more meaning out there, which means there’s more tension because it’s not complete. Also there’s scope within all of us, a limited scope, to think about different meanings at different times, and then also be able to converse with other people.

So, there are necessary tensions between groups that prioritise different things through different language. What then happens, with power for instance, it’s about what Mouffe calls the ‘hegemonic discourse’. If I say the word feminism, what is the average person going to tell you is the definition of that word? So much of political discourse on power and tribal context is around this fundamental idea of values in language. That’s her discourse theory. It is wonderful.

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Belgian philosopher Chantal Mouffe, from “For a Left Populism

The democratic theory then comes from the idea that ‘Given conflict is always going to occur, and given that we value pluralism — we value a variety of different points of view — how can we take that to its most radical edge? How can we both value conflict, whilst trying to preserve some kind of non-violent principle as well?’ Mouffe’s work suggests there’s always going to be a tension between these two, and one the tensions that really does exist in democratic theory is between individual freedom and democracy. That’s why I said that democracy, by its nature, has got to be contested. Otherwise, those tensions aren’t going to align.

So I guess what I’d prioritise more is…there are two approaches you can take in politics: that we’re all singing from the same hymn sheet; or that we’re going to try and build a song from as many different hymn sheets as possible, and we accept that if you try and listen to it all, then it sounds messy, but there is beauty coming out of individual parts. There are so many people, in this world of post-truth, who are trying to get everyone to sing from the same hymn sheet, to get them to have the same rational ideas, as opposed to recognising that there might be many different languages, and the issue is translation between them.

The translation seems hard, because no one’s really done it before, and that’s kind of the area that I would love to get funding in. But no one really gets it. Agonistic design isn’t really a present idea right now, it’s all about ‘achieving consensus’, as opposed to what I think which is; ‘We don’t need consensus, we just need to get along with other people’.

On Critical Thinking

Max — It makes me particularly sad that agonism is not considered to be an appealing idea for tenure, because it strikes me whenever you go into a fairly functional Commentariat, you tend to find people who source the ills of our day towards a deficit of critical thinking. You always find with that the expressed wish that this kind of thinking should be more forthrightly inculcated in children throughout their education. The belief that underlies this wish for more critical thinking seems to be that it would be a means of limiting the amount of conflict among us, when in fact it seems to me that an excess of critical thinking makes the number of theatres of conflict potentially infinite.

Alice — Yes, and this is the entire thing around echo chambers, and the source of my problem with deliberative democrats, which is that: deliberation is actually to try and get us to agree on something, which is required in some circumstances, but not in every circumstance. I think what’s really interesting about that idea of people advocating for more critical thinking; there’s a latent nostalgia in these things for times like the 90s, which, though it might still have been rather patriarchal, had a way of thinking that ‘We all know what progress looks like: it’s just a matter of how we get there.’

I think that there’s still, within those who hold that idea that young people cannot think critically, the hope that, were we all critical thinkers, we would all be homogeneous. What’s also interesting about that is, for instance, for all the attempts to keep up with technological trends, of [staying data literate], what people are not thinking about are all the other ways that culture can move — it’s not just technology. There’s something there, that we have to bear in mind: in 20 years, when we’re the older generation, we’ll have to reckon with the fact that change doesn’t just come from technology. It’s a case of how to keep your mind agile enough to cope with it.

Max — There’s something fascinating carried in each of those points, the idea that critical thinking actually brings about more consensus, or the ‘correct’ kind of consensus.

Alice — It’s so interesting, isn’t it? But it does! It does in mathematics or science, because everyone comes to agree on the correct methodology.

Max — And, in fact, if you take that idea as axiomatic, you can generalise it to much less objectively rigorous forums of critical exchange. Criticism has become a social mode, and is functionally the most widely used social mode through social media platforms, and look at how consensus is cultivated there.

Alice — Yeah…I think people are starting to wake up to this kind of thing.

On Events and Provocations

Max — Talk to me about the events the Echo Chamber Club does… you have meet ups and invite speakers? I heard Alain de Botton spoke at the last one?

Alice — Sure, part of the ECCs role is to bring together people working on similar problems from different angles. The meet up should really be about meeting different people, but it’s helpful to have provocations by interesting people in the community to inspire conversation between strangers.

Max — And what is a provocation?

Alice — I can’t remember if I stole that terminology from somewhere, or whether I just made it up. I think of a provocation as being contrasted with a ‘keynote’. A keynote is a highly polished show that a speaker has spent months preparing. A provocation is a short 5 minute segment on a half baked idea and needs to use the room [to develop it]. The other thing that’s really important is to not have Q&A [in the main body of the exercise], because if you’re doing a provocation to build up a partly-formed point of view you don’t want to be publicly challenged on it. It’s much better for people to come up to you personally afterwards so you can have a chat. I don’t like Q&As — I feel they are never established in order to actually critique an idea, it’s more of a power-play between two individuals. A one-on-one conversation is much more effective for idea development and generation.

Max — That’s in the sense of removing the audience component from a Q&A?

Alice — Yes, and it means you can actually spend more time actively discussing the issue. Sometimes hours on a particular point, as opposed to 90 seconds in front of an audience.

Of course, the conversation above took place before the escalation proper of Coronavirus into a matter of truly global concern. Now, the pandemic has called a stop-gap to all but the most remote communal activity, and has thoroughly hijacked the collective thought process.

What the outbreak, and the according confinement, cannot affect (except to delay) is the pertinence the issues discussed continue to bear on the trajectory of our society. It is not merely the fact that online conflict will resume apace once relative normality has been restored (to the extent that such conflict has, in fact, stopped at all). It is too the fact that, as we have discussed elsewhere, the precise consumptive appetites that have driven the Early Digital tech boom may root in the exact same social principles that have driven the West’s notably poor rate of action in securing the health of its peoples.

Naturally, and not without justification, there will be emotive if not political reprisals laid upon pertinent governments as regards their lack of proper performance to protect their people during the Corona chapter (if, indeed, such anger and grief is not mollified by collective relief and gratitude at the end of the long lockdown period).

Then, particularly we in the West must pose ourselves a ‘provocation’: how we can manage the tensions of political discussion more responsibly, to prime the political stage for a better and more well-roundedly-human type of candidate (please do not misunderstand this statement as suggestion that the current political class are inhuman; I personally deplore this kind of absurd insult-philosophy as the precise root-and-branch of the political problems I am currently describing).

We must pose ourselves further such probing questions about how our — with both electorate and political class equally culpable, such as is always the case in a functional democracy — absolute distaste for compromise and moderation has contributed to the situation we find ourselves in, a distaste we continue to make ourselves comfortable in, even despite the self-evident failure of every other form of intransigence we have tried to use (and which we, for that matter, enjoy) to change things for the better.

If we cannot, as a society, come to understand the value of that agonistic disagreement spoken about here — of the competing priorities of articulating ourselves with greater balance and generosity towards our opponents; to know well enough our situation, our history, our individual competencies to be able to cede the initiative to our opposite numbers when theirs is the more sensible path — then we will remain as much in intellectual quarantine as we are now in universal quarantine.

How we live under COVID-19 is simply the intellectual tenor of the 10s mapped onto the world at large — fearful, restricted, parochial. It will be a turn to new ideas, not merely better tech or new ceremony, that will provide its liberating vaccine.

[1] Deliberative democracy is a form of democracy in which deliberation is held to be the key component of decision making — that law is constituted not merely by a vote, but by authentic deliberation, and an agreed-upon outcome, subsequent to that vote. Deliberative democracy, as a form of direct democracy (that which pertains to the electorate itself) has gained in popularity throughout the 10s, and has been in evidence, for instance, in the reactions of certain factions of the British Remain vote.

[2] Liberal democracy is a form of democracy most intimately beholden to the pillars of classical liberalism — multiple opposition parties, separation of powers along legislative, executive and jurisprudential lines, the rule of law — to the priority of individual freedom, and avoidance of the tyranny of the majority.

[3] Republican democracy is a form of democracy that places priority on holding a state to account through the principles of popular sovereignty, though this is far from the term’s only historical definition.

Wonk Bridge

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