Monday, 16 January 2017

On Echo Chambers and Trust

My Facebook wall is awash (and has been for months) with anti-Trump and anti-Brexit posts. This is unsurprising: I didn’t vote for Brexit, and I wouldn’t have voted for Trump. But I don’t want my Facebook wall to be an echo chamber, and so I allow pro-Trump and pro-Brexit posts on my wall. I must admit that I seldom click on these posts to read the journalism beyond, but I should also add that I seldom do that with the posts towards which I am favourably disposed. I’m more likely to engage with friends’ personal posts on political or socioreligious matters than I am to click any links they might share about these things. And I’m far more likely to share funny photos of cats, anyway. Who doesn’t love a picture of disgruntled kittens in a bath?

Once thing I have noticed—though I hasten to add that this is mostly through reading the post titles and whatever picture is shared with it—is that any amount of ‘evidence’ can be given to support any given position, and any amount of ‘counter-evidence’ can be given to support the opposite position. The dynamic is:

x is good because y says so.’
‘No! x can’t be good because z proves that y is wrong about x.’
‘But you’re forgetting that z is actually owned/supported by t, and t has links to w, which means that z’s opinion about y is seriously open to correction.’
‘You’re all wrong! Neither z nor y is right . . . but x is good because it promotes a and not b.’
‘Chill—here’s a photo of a cat pretending to fly a toy plane.’

And so on.

I dare say that the majority of the people who read the journalism behind these posts, including me when occasion suits, haven’t actually done the hard investigative work themselves. They are dependent for their opinions on the people who have done the research, trusting that the research has been qualitative. But the matter of trust is crucial, because without this very subjective element, all we can do is choose arbitrarily between options: ‘Do I prefer a’s opinion piece/report, or do I prefer that of b?’ Trust is the subjective element that turns arbitrariness into commitment, even if someone else might judge that commitment to be misplaced on the basis of who s/he trusts.


  1. I'm not sure if this is an idea whose time has come, or just one that's currently doing the rounds - but it's one I too have been planning a post just this week since listening to a fascinating Radio 4 programme on the subject. Well worth checking out:

    The programme looks at the whole idea of 'Post-truth' and whether or not it's really a thing. As part of that it looks at echo chambers and 'bubbles', particularly in social media, and also at the relationship between truth and trust.

    Some of the programme's findings were pretty sobering. They suggested that most of us arrive at our political (and perhaps equally our religious) views through a process that has far less to do with reason or fact than we imagine, and only then find evidence and argument to support our views and reject those of our opponents. They also suggested that many of our beliefs/views act as badges of identity within the group we want to belong to, and so we have a huge emotional investment in maintaining them.

    And of course our echo chambers reinforce these views, because the groups we belong to tend to agree with us and support our beliefs.

    They also looked at how what we accept as truth depends on who we trust. One of the voices on the programme is an American conservative senator who initially rejected climate change because all he knew about it was that Al Gore believed in it and Al Gore belonged to the other tribe. When the conservative senator finally did change his mind, other Republicans viewed him as a traitor. And he suggested that if you want to win over conservatives, you have to talk conservative - if you sound liberal, they will instantly reject anything you have to say.

    1. Fascinating stuff, Harvey. And do blog on the matter. Your thoughts are always interesting to read.

  2. Thanks Terry! The programme certainly gave me pause (if that's a phrase!) - I wonder how many of my cherished views and beliefs are simply those of the tribe I belong to or want to belong to, and how much of the reasoning I imagine supports my views is simply a convenient spin on the available evidence to make it support my beliefs.

    Have you come across the idea of Doxastic Involuntarism, the philosophical idea that we don't and can't choose what we believe? I don't think I believe it... ;)

    1. I hadn't come across it by name . . .