What Makes an Echo Chamber

Lately, I have heard frequent reference to the dreaded echo chamber. The term seems to be universally pejorative, and the close-minded saps who would inhabit such a place are judged harshly.

I’m wary of an insult that is broadly used, and in what appears to be a one-sided manner. I’d like to feel the boundaries of this one a bit.

I have, on many occasions, participated in what I’ll call a fan club. Here are some of them:

Amiga User’s Group: A meeting of people who own Commadore’s Amiga Personal Computer, and want to share their insights in computing, their reasons for preferring Amiga, share software, play games together, and generally socialize with other Amiga Users. Often, it was a circle jerk about how the Amiga was the best computer and everyone else was ignorant.

Lightwave User’s Group: A meeting of 3D animators who use the NewTek Lightwave software, and want to share insights in 3D modelling, rigging, preferences for modelling tools and methods, and other 3D animation topics. Often, it’s a circle jerk about how Lightwave has hands-down the best modelling tools, and a pretty darn good renderer.

Software Development Group: A meeting of software developers who use the same tools (generally the same language, and Integrated Development Environment) to develop software and like to circle-jerk about their software development tools, share ideas on how software should be made, propose standards and conventions, and show off each other’s work.

Anime Fan Groups: People who love Japanese animation.

Role Playing Groups: People who love Dungeons & Dragons and other role playing games (I was also into GURPS, Car Wars, Cyberpunk, and Paranoia) and often board games.

The “Echo Chamber” insults seem to revolve around Social and Political topics.

My questions to the crowd are these (although you should feel free to share any insights you like):

1. What boundaries separate a permissible echo chamber from an impermissible one?

2. What obligation do people have to avoid being part of an echo chamber?

3. What justification do people have for intervening or breaking up an echo chamber? Is there a moral imperative? Is it spite?

4. Based on 1-3, why are echo chambers seen in a strictly negative light?


  • Drowbert101

    Not sure why, but I always seem to need a “seed” comment to get this into the Disqus channels.

  • Matthew Schweigert

    1.) The boundaries I see most people complain about are ones that might not meet the perceived topic. For example, if we played D&D as a group but chastised Star Wars fans since we’re Trekkies.

    2.) Only an obligation to the health of the group and to broadening their own horizons. So, in effect no real obligation just a desire for a varied opinion.

    3.) Likely born from trying to help or a high belief in one’s opinion/world view.

    4.) To outsiders it’s a short-cut to dismiss an entire group’s opinion instead of engaging the group.

  • SteamTroller

    I don’t see echo chambers in a strictly negative light. I think an echo chamber is fine for fan clubs, and only becomes problematic when it isn’t advertised as such. I’m going to use Reddit as an example because it has many ways to create and enforce echo chambers.

    Reddit is comprised of many subreddits that a user can subscribe to, which are individually moderated. Moderators can ban users and delete posts. Additionally, Reddit allows users to upvote or downvote posts — the most upvoted posts are displayed on the front page of a subreddit, and on the aggregated Reddit front pages. Downvoting a post will help ensure that other users do not see it.

    This works well on subreddits that are functionally fan clubs. The Bernie Sander’s subreddit has multiple ways to keep Bernie Sander’s fans up to date and engaged, while culling content that is not pro-Sanders or is otherwise off topic. The Cats subreddit features pictures of cats, stories about cats, and isn’t inundated with people talking about the superiority of dogs.

    This doesn’t work well for subreddits that purport to be neutral, such as News and Politics, for several reasons. Because politics are inherently divisive, and because Reddit users lean left, it’s somewhat expected that most of the content on there would also lean left. And it does; conservative opinions will often get buried in downvotes. I expected News was neutral coming into Reddit, only to eventually discover that the News moderators heavily censor stories that do not fit liberal narratives, such as the ethnicity/religion of the recent Orlando shooter.

  • CWalois

    I think Matthew already provided much the same answers that I would have, so instead of answering the numbered questions I’ll just write something free-form that directly addresses the subject that inspired this post.

    When you belong to a user’s group or a fan club, it is based around the concepts of “sharing enthusiasm” and “learning more about the subject”. So if Scott Adams had started the Donald Trump Appreciation Club, it would only be right for the club to focus on saying positive things about Trump and talking about his life, and supporters of other candidates would rightly be banned for detracting from the group’s mission statement.

    But being that a lot of Scott’s readers are contrarian by nature (some of us have a little of Dilbert in us), there was a desire to bring out other points of view that were being neglected. I suspect that is the main reason that Scott killed the comments section. We, the readers, had a “creative difference” with the person whose blog we were commenting on. We (well, some of us) wanted an egalitarian discussion group, and Scott wanted us to admire his own understanding of persuasion.

    That’s not to say that Scott only killed comments because of detractors. He may not have been fond of the “Trump for Fuhrer 2016” guys, and perhaps believed that they were actually Hillarybots (his reference to people “doing political work” on him). The quantity of those comments was giving a very one-sided, neo-N*zi-esque vibe to his blog which was probably making dinners with his Californian friends increasingly awkward.

  • Mouth

    “I can’t believe Nixon won. I don’t know anyone who voted for him.”
    The same boundaries, obligations, imperatives, etc. apply for someone who is ignorant as to someone who is ignorant because of an echo chamber.
    Echo chamber = Ignorant
    Emperor’s New Clothes
    No one has to burst the bubble, but it can enlighten the person person 🙂 or be fun for whoever sticks the pin.

  • Kaito Kid

    I think the problem with Echo chambers, as others have said, only appear when the people in them don’t realise it. If you join the chess club at school, you expect to alk mostly about chess to people who like chess. If you go to a website that advertises itself as neutral, and then you only see anti-trump posts and comments, because the admins actually ban anything pro-trump, then you’re in a bad echo chamber. Most people that stick over there won’t ever realise that the banning makes it not neutral, and they will expect society to be composed of approximetely 98% anti-trump people, since in their eyes 98% of the content in a neutral zone is anti-trump.

    On an unrelated note, DrowLord101, do you know what happened to Iprayiam? Can we expect the frequents posts to come back in Hypothica? I’d like to hear any information you could have, no matter how small, about The future of Hypothica. I’ve added a section to my blog because this one looked dead for a month, so I’d like to know as quickly as possible when it’s time to remove it.
    http://readysetthink.net/the-future-of-hypothica/

    • Drowbert101

      He hasn’t replied to my emails. It doesn’t look like he’s ever been very active on Facebook, but regardless, no recent Facebook activity. I have no idea why he has gone dark.

  • 404_Username_Not_Found

    An echo chamber is morally neutral. It is the actions taken by its participants and the affects of those actions on others that need to be addressed. So an echo chamber becomes imperrmissable when the actions taken are impermissible. An example of a politically neutral echo chamber would be a publically trade company’s executive leadership that has coalesced into a group think entity and is ignoring data that should be informing decisions. The result of this particular echo chamber is that the company is being mismanaged, and is not generating the most profit possible or sufficiently increasing the value of the company. In this case anyone with a duty to the stockholders has a duty to break up the echo chamber and ensure that a broader range of data and concepts are being considered. That should answer 1 & 3.

    As for 4, it goes back to that saying “If you and I think exactly alike, then one of us is redundant.” If all you do is meet with a group of people who renforce your preconceptions without giving critical thought to other perspectives then there is no value being added by that group.

    As for 2 there really is no obligation other than to self provided you arent taking harmful action as a result. But if you are the CEO of the company from my example then you do have an obligation to make sure your decision mkaing process is an informed one.

  • Drowbert101

    Sorry all, for some reason, I didn’t see that anybody had commented on this blog. I was wondering why it was dead. Looks like it was user error on my part.

  • Good points, especially from 404. On the day of the UK’s Chilcot report into the Iraq war, there’s definitely a danger of “group think” forming inside the echo chamber of the inner circle of a government, as was clearly the case in the UK and in the US re: WMDs in Iraq back in 2003. The Chilcot report summaries suggest some reasonably general counter-group think tactics that may be worth thinking about (google for “Chilcot report summary” and I’m sure you’ll find them).

    Turning from big echo chambers to smaller ones, eg. Disqus Master Persuader echo chambers, I think the main thing we can all do to avoid being part of an echo chamber is to not just tolerate dissenting opinions, but actively encourage them.

    Repeating “I don’t agree with your opinions, but I’ll fight to the death for your right to express them, you troll” 10 times each night may also help:-)

  • Travis

    I think a key feature in an echo chamber is the positive feedback, like feedback from a mic/amplifier. People with mildly off centre views can reinforce each other’s opinions until you end up with some form of extremist (hate) group. No single person came up with the extreme views the mature group is known for and no single person feels responsible for the groups thoughts or actions because these thoughts and actions have been building piece by piece over time. Echo chambers create situations where everyone involved feels their views and the facts they have been presented are the overwhelming majority.

    The corporate environment is a great example. Do we think that all tobacco executives are inherently evil people? I think a more likely scenario is the industry has created a positive feedback loop of misinformation, such that the executives, against overwhelming scientific evidence, firmly believe their product is not killing the 6 Million people per year the WHO claims: that the executive’s studies and facts are right and everyone else is wrong. Of course there are many explanations or ways of thinking of how this situation occurred: perhaps the profit motivation outweighs moral obligations in some more than others… But this is one way of looking at it.

    World Health Orginaization
    http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs339/en/

  • JGStorms

    Great post Drowlord!
    Let’s have fun with this. What if we saw one person, instead of a group. The group theme becomes the idea that repeats in your mind:

    1 What boundaries separate a permissible echoing idea from an impermissible one?
    Clearly it must be “good” and kept in check. The noblest ideas reach the furthest extremes.

    2 What obligation do people have to avoid being influenced echoing ideas?
    I’d say people need an repeated and reinforced ideas to get anywhere, otherwise they’d be tossed about like Autumn leaves. Moving fast and going nowhere.

    3a What justification do people use for intervening or breaking up an echoing idea? Is there a moral imperative? Is it spite?
    Spite happens, but more often people want to kill foreign ideas in order to safeguard their own. It’s easier to attach than defend.

    3b What justification should people have for intervening or breaking up an echoing idea?
    Well if they know best. But then, why should anyone believe they really do know best?

    4 Based on 1-3, why are echoing ideas seen in a strictly negative light?
    Because get results. Results are change. And change, is scary.

    • Travis

      To answer one of the questions(4)… I think echoing ideas are seen both positive and negative, we just have a different word for positive ideas. Positive echoing ideas called ‘gone viral’. There are many memes and positive movements that have been named viral, such as flash mobs, or the the ice bucket challenge.

  • Allfather

    I’m a big fan of the “court jester” concept. I think every club, organization, party etc. that deals with important topics and decisions should hire one person whose JOB is to disagree, point out flaws, etc. This would help society as a whole by reducing the echo chamber effect, but it would also help the individual group: if the NRA hires one vocal person who wants to ban guns, they’ll refine a lot of their arguments, and they won’t be caught off guard if the public disagrees with something they say.