Celtic Riverside – The Online Journal of James Keenan

Sounds of Silence and Echo Chambers

The “echo chamber” phenomenon is real, especially on social media. Even if companies like Facebook and Twitter are not actively creating echo chambers, as they may very well be, the practicality of the platforms allows users to create one for themselves.

My regular activity on Twitter is with people who share perspective on issues, not with those who disagree. I don’t expect people to change their minds on social media and so I rarely seek out opponents to start a disagreement, and rarely do the trolls seem to find me to stir up trouble. I meet with people who share not only a similar idea of what the problems are, but also similar ideas of what the solutions to those problems are.

I recognise the inherent danger in this. It shuts out opposing perspective. While I might disagree, vehemently even, with a perspective, usually it presents some value to broaden or strengthen my understanding of an issue. Perhaps we disagree about the conclusion, but they may have a premise that I hadn’t considered. Disagreement and, to some extent, conflict has its place in discourse.

Generally the issue I encounter is that I lack the scientific experience necessary in the field of question. I am a writer who spends his days as an analyst. People present me with data they collected and my piece of the puzzle is to enforce data quality controls and help produce reports and dashboards. I don’t handle the collection, and I don’t handle the decision-making that occurs later.

So when it comes to an issue like trans rights or abortion, I am no expert and recognise that I am no expert. I speak to people in those communities and look for the peer-reviewed research on the subject. Are those things conclusive? Of course not. But they often lean strongly one way. That determines my perspective on the issue (which, for my part, is an opinion and not fact) that others may sway. However, they must sway it with peer-reviewed fact and research, not their opinion.

Here, I’ll provide a “controversial” example:

  • Trans Rights – “A man is an adult, human male. Male is something determined by XY chromosomes and female is something determined by XX. Trans women are men.” That’s a simplistic form of the counter-argument to my position, often leaning heavily on the dictionary definition of the terms. What my reading into the matter revealed is that 1) sex is not as simple as XX/XY – that generally applies but is a reductive approach to sex and 2) gender identity, even taken in the context of physical sex rather than as a psychological concept, does not reflect that a person changes from one gender or sex to the other, but that they were mis-identified in the first place and are now identifying correctly. As with most labels, “trans” and “cis” are therefore meaningless except to express “we identified this person wrong at birth” and “we identified this person correctly”. Trans-women are simply women misidentified as men, as opposed to cis women who were identified as women all along.

That’s not my attitude about the matter. I haven’t studied biology in depth or worked with the trans community in any sort of scientific capacity. That is the considered opinion of researchers, biologists, psychologists, and other professionals who have looked into the matter. I could entertain only so much opposition from Jane T. Exclusionary on Twitter about why she feels that isn’t the case. It offers an alternate perspective, but not in a way of value that would cause my position to evolve considerably.

Individually it causes few problems in my life. My conversations with ideological opponents are often quite civil, perhaps because I hesitate to engage/advocate strongly enough to provoke them. My position often comes in the form of questioning them about theirs (undoubtedly reveal my bias in the direction the questions lead, but allowing them ample time to explain). Still, some people are not engaged in dialogue – they are talking heads shouting their opinion in one direction:

Graham Allen, Michael Avenatti, Steve Bannon, Roseanne Barr, Glenn Beck, Kaitlin Bennett, Chris Brown, Louis C.K., Tucker Carlson, Ben Carson, Ann Coulter, Ted Cruz, the Deplorable Choir, Betsy DeVos, Dinesh D’Souza, Rudy Giuliani, Lindsey Graham, Kimberly Guilfoyle, Sean Hannity, Katie Hopkins, Mike Huckabee, Laura Ingraham, Alex Jones, Brett Kavanaugh, R. Kelly, Steve King, Charlie Kirk, Tomi Lahren, Rush Limbaugh, Graham Linehan, Dana Loesch, Mitch McConnell, Steven Miller, Steven Mnuchin, Roy Moore, Piers Morgan, Mick Mulvaney, Kirstjen Nielsen, Bill O’ Reilly, Candace Owens, Rick Perry, Jordan Peterson, Katrina Pierson, Scott Pruitt, Geraldo Rivera, Charlie Rose, Marco Rubio, Sarah Huckabee-Sanders, Bernie Sanders, Rick Santorum, Eric Schneiderman, Jeff Sessions, Ben Shapiro, Stephen A. Smith, Rex Tillerson, Donald Trump, Donald Trump Jr., Eric Trump, Ivanka Trump, Melania Trump, Lara Trump, Kanye West, Matthew Whitaker, Jacob Wohl, and John Ziegler

And I think this list of, “No, thanks, I don’t care to listen anymore” invites two obvious observations.

First, “James, that list is awfully conservative/Republican. How can you even pretend to be open-minded when the list of people you no longer wish to hear is so partisan?”

The answer to that is the echo chamber itself – not the idea of being sheltered within one but the nature of echo chambers occurring alongside one another. If you are typically a liberal/Democratic thinker on the Internet today, guess whose positions are constantly in your face? The conservative/Republican thinkers.

The Internet is an outrage machine in today’s body politic, and while those who follow me and those I follow are disproportionately liberal, the subject of many posts is the statements put forth by the conservatives.

So the answer to the question, “Oh, this FOX pundit is too much for your snowflake ears but you don’t mind this CNN pundit?” is, I’m not sure. That CNN pundit is thrown in my face constantly. My feeds are a stream of outrage against the people mentioned above, and they are not individuals who engage with my personally. There is no back-and-forth. It’s them spewing an opinion with which I do not agree, with none of the relevant scientific backing to make entertaining it worth my while. Perhaps they have a scientific backing, but I’m not getting it.

Second, “James, I hate listening to some of these people, too. But they are in positions of authority now, influencing others, and we have a responsibility to know what they are doing.”

For example, “You might not like Betsy DeVos, but she’s making decisions that will affect education in this country.”

I agree with that. What I do not agree with is the idea that I’m getting an accurate sense of that from listening to them speak. Watching what they do is the key to understanding their policy, and things that cannot be prevented must be undone. The United States, the world, will outlast their stints in those positions of authority and are therefore bigger than any of these people. Much of what happens there is beyond my control anyway. I focus on myself and those in my life, making sure we’re doing what is necessary to get and protect the outcome that is best for our society.

That is, don’t focus on Betsy, focus on education.

It’s arrogant to assume that one is above cognitive bias. It’s also impractical. We all make assumptions and generalisations in order to get through life. The trick is recognising when and where those things exist to allow for change when appropriate.

I’m not going to listen to any person who spouts something with which I disagree. Opinions and perspectives are not created equal. Some things are just wrong (the Earth is spherical, sorry, flat-Earthers). I recognise that I may be wrong about every single one of these issues (therefore likely that I am wrong about at least some of them). I also recognise about what I am insistent and what the counterpoint looks like that would change my mind.

Echo chambers are bad because the echo should not be the basis for truth in one’s life, but they are also unavoidable. Going the opposite way and entertaining every single idea with equal weight is just as bad. Develop scientific literacy and apply that process to your life to overcome both as best possible. Then we might all be able to get together and fix some things.

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