Not Actually Echo Chambers

Any discussion about our current polarization is guaranteed to include some commentary about how our “echo chambers” are part of the problem. Which totally makes sense. If you only listen to one set of ideas, you are much more likely to believe those ideas are correct. But, actually, I think what we have is indeed worse than pure “echo chambers.”

Listen to any partisan media – from The Daily Show to Rush Limbaugh – for a mere 10 minutes and you’ll quickly notice that opposing voices are not only not absent, but featured prominently. Hell, the entire programming model is play clip of political rival, make fun of clip, and repeat. Some of this is particularly egregious when the rival’s point is intentionally misinterpreted or when a particularly fringe rival is cast as representative of the other side. Though even when that perniciousness is absent the point is the same: the other side is so stupid so as to not even be worth trying to interpret charitably. This amounts to something far worse than an echo chamber because a consumer does rightfully1 believe he is indeed hearing from the other side. Echo chamber? I’ve heard all those lib senators and they are idiots. This belief is surely possible because the host will always direct you to that conclusion, because the host is telling you what you want to hear.2 Which is all to say that the consumer is far more sure of his rightness than he would be if he only ever heard his own side speak.

The not-actually-echo-chamber phenomenon is also weirdly true with Twitter, the place everyone is so sure is an echo chamber. The disconnect is apparent as soon as someone, inevitably, talks about how Twitter is such a “wasteland filled with hate.” This sounds fine, but it doesn’t compute. If everyone only listened to their own side, who is doing this hating? Some can be explained away as the fun of “scoring points” on the enemy. Some can also be explained by the general attraction of celebrity and the desire to stand out. But there remains the non-prominent journalists getting vicious responses to innocuous tweets like, “I’m not going to be writing an article this week.” How does a hater even find this non-trending person? They would have to, like, being following them, right? Even if you want to dismiss this all as bored people having fun by trolling, these people are necessarily being continually exposed to ideas they do not support. And unlike in the case of Rush Limbaugh, there is no host telling them why the idea is awful.

Hence my skepticism that “listening to the other side” will get us out of the current mess.

  1. To some extent.
  2. That’s the true “echo chamber” element.