cracking the chambers

Thi Nguyen, Associate Professor of Philosophy at Utah Valley University describes two related but distinct phenomena of collective human behaviour — bubbles and chambers.

An epistemic bubble is what happens when insiders aren’t exposed to people from the opposite side.
An echo chamber is what happens when insiders come to distrust everybody on the outside.

An epistemic bubble, for example, might form on one’s social media feed. When a person gets all their news and political arguments from Facebook and all their Facebook friends share their political views, they’re in an epistemic bubble. They hear arguments and evidence only from their side of the political spectrum. They’re never exposed to the other side’s views.

An echo chamber leads its members to distrust everybody on the outside of that chamber. And that means that an insider’s trust for other insiders can grow unchecked. —Big Think 2019-09-16

Nguyen believes that echo chambers are the real problem because members “are far more entrenched and far more resistant to outside voices than epistemic bubbles”. They do not trust people outside their chamber. These echo chambers can exist on all sides of any political spectrum. Nguyen concludes that, “To break somebody out of an echo chamber, you’d need to repair that broken trust”.

So what can be done?

In my post on constant outrage I outlined several methods to get out of an echo chamber.

  • Get out and meet different people outside your social circles
  • Use science to back up your thoughts
  • Take time to reflect
  • Criticize and be critical
  • Accept ambiguity
  • Cooperate and give to your networks and communities
  • Be skeptical of stories, especially via social media

Britt Watwood suggested six skills for listening.

  1. Pay attention
  2. Withhold judgment
  3. Reflect
  4. Clarify
  5. Summarize
  6. Share

Nancy Dixon shared how Better Angels in the USA — “bring together 7 people from Red [Republican] and 7 people from Blue [Democrat] persuasion to listen to each other – not to change their minds or try to convince, but to hear each other. Participants from these 6 hour workshops come away seeing the other side as human beings rather than stereotypes.”

Would these methods work? Are they enough?

The Better Angels approach seems to be a good place to start. We do not trust people we do not know. We are not very willing to get to know people with whom we have strong differences of opinion. Making space for people to act like humans is what all levels of government and communities should be supporting. In 2015 we noted “a growing democratic deficit which has contributed to recent cynicism and societal distrust” in Identifying & Responding to Issues in Canada for the Department of Justice. Cities are well-suited to provide the physical infrastructure that enables and promotes diverse groups to rub elbows in open access civic spaces. Exposure can lead to conversations, and perhaps trust, if the environment is non-confrontational. It is in cities where we see the actual protests of citizens, such as climate strikes or the yellow vests.

A significant way to reduce epistemic bubbles and echo chambers would be to promote public social media, where advertising plays no role. This is an anti-capitalist approach but advertising thrives on constant outrage, from both sides of any divide. We have to first eliminate these negative feedback loops to promote civil discourse.

Grant Stern is a progressive who writes a column for Occupy Democrats and is the executive director of Photography Is Not A Crime. BuzzFeed News sent him American News LLC’s liberal and conservative sites and asked him to comment on the fact that they’re run by the same company.

“Those websites are marketing websites,” he said after looking at the content, “and the product they’re pitching is outrage.” —BuzzFeed 2017-02-27

If we design physical and virtual spaces for human-to-human conversations, we might start chipping away at the echo chambers.

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