Toxicity and the Danger of the Echo Chamber

You can find a relationship between social media and political polarisation if you look only at social media,” he said. “If you look, in other words, at Twitter or you look only at Facebook. But in a complex, multi-media environment – which is the way people live now because of the internet – you don’t find that, you find people consuming a lot of media

Dr Grant Blank

The premise of this article is the notion of the echo chamber, a term that suggests a theorised premise where we exist in a state surrounded by those who echo our sentiments and opinions. It’s a complex notion that has been challenged and debated, notably and most recently by Dr Blank in breaking down the model on the basis we, as individual don’t live exclusively in the digital domain, these opinions we surround ourselves in on platforms such as Twitter or Facebook are not the sole exposure to contrarian viewpoints which are as visible and have an equal impact in traditional forms of media or through social interactions. We have a broad, complex web of interactions which demolish the notion of an ‘echo chamber’ of thought and opinion and as such looking to use this as a broad rationalization to explain the growing polarisation of thought is a weak premise.

One of my recent interactions was with Megan at A Geeky Gal who penned an eloquent and succinct post on looking to curb and remove toxicity in the Fandom Community. I’m blessed and fortuitous not to have experienced this to any great degree in my digital interactions. Whether you ascribe this to ‘male privilege’ or simply not looking to seek contentious groups and dialogues out, I’ll concede there is ‘toxic behaviour’ in digital fan groups. Equally, this is not a new concept or notion, that toxicity and negative behaviour has existed through time immemorial whenever the temptation presents itself to rush towards our tribal base. I previously wrote an article in August last year on the necessity to maintain a centrist viewpoint and not look to move towards the right or left despite the temptations of both. One of the suggested notions in this particular article was the curation of activity in fandom’s, in online social groups and discussions.

“There are times when we all feel like our social media feeds slant in one particular direction. And, ironically, because the idea of echo chambers and filter bubbles has bounced around social media, gaining traction there.

Amol Rajan

One aspect I described in my previous article was the notion of how we view and treat platforms such as WordPress, Facebook and Twitter in the digital era as public access environments or private companies with responsibility for curating and curbing ideologies and viewpoints contrarian to their own. This, I feel would provide context and addressing the danger of an echo chamber forming around us. In the US, the first amendment and the notion of free speech is enshrined in their US constitution, there are some limitations or words not protected by this act. For example incitement to lawless action, child pornography and true threats. However, merely expressing a contrarian viewpoint, whether you agree or not is allowed in a public environment. In the UK, we have similar freedoms though the notion of ‘hate speech’ has challenged that contention. If we view digital platforms as a utility, a public environment then in theory there may be the potential to be exposed to legal viewpoints that we may not agree with but if valid serve to challenge our pre-conceived notions.

The opposite viewpoint is viewing platforms as a private domain, that as a user you cannot publish ideas or viewpoints that whilst legally valid go against the ethos of the particular company. We’ve seen this most visibly with the conversation around the rights of protected groups. The police in the UK actively record non crime hate incidents, these are legally acceptable statements or actions that have a subjective judgement as defined:

“Any action perceived to be motivated by hostility towards religion, race or transgender identity must be recorded “irrespective of whether there is any evidence to identify the hate element”

This approach adopted by forces through the college of policing I find genuinely shocking as it looks to record against an individual based on a perception of their motivation on CBS records which can directly impact job applications and reference checks. In the case of Harry Miller this approach by Humberside Police was ruled unlawful by the High Court as an affront on his free speech rights. It’s easy to understand why private companies lean towards an approach of overt caution to avoid these challenges in the courts and the adverse negative publicity.

“People can #deletefacebook and still live respectably. It’s much harder to do that without basic transport, power, communications, water, and sewer services. Because Facebook is not a physical, tangible network and is not on the same level of necessity as a “real” utility, it isn’t one”

Susan Crawford

The legalities of identifying digital companies such as Facebook and Twitter as utilities, and by definition not liable for the content produced has been challenged before Congress in recent history. A technicality perhaps but the contrarian viewpoint would see them as publishers who edit and restrict certain terms or ideas on their platforms. This you may feel is more in keeping with what they do, banning certain terms or blocking certain users who say legally viable terms or ideas on their platforms but find themselves challenging the beliefs of these companies. I find it important to define these companies as we can then look to discuss the concept of toxicity in these areas in an earnest and honest fashion. If Facebook, Twitter et el are a public domain where the companies are not liable for the material published then unless the opinions stated fall outside the laws of the particular country the user is based, first amendment restrictions for instance as listed, there is no grounding to block opposing or contrarian views other than for your own well being.

The findings of Dr Blank as stated would suggest that the notion of the echo chamber mentality is unfounded as we as users experience a broad consensus of viewpoints in our daily lives that cannot explain a shift towards tribal polarisation. My contention with that stand point is the ability we have today to ‘block’ or ‘mute’ words or phrases we find uncomfortably or challenging to our view points. In a private domain, we have freedom to do as we wish, to block sentiments and notions we don’t agree with but are these digital platforms a private domain we should have the ability to curate or block such ideas? equally does that ability to block words, phrases, to leave spaces in the digital environment and in the real world to silence those who express contrarian viewpoints form the echo chamber where we are actively disengaging from the broad media as suggested by Dr Blank.

Going back to the premise of this article was to look at the notion of the echo chamber, with evidence to suggest it is a theorised notion which can be challenged in its validity but that standpoint is based on the view we are exposed outside the digital realm to opposing views to ours that shape our impression. Through the ability to remove and block opposing views in the digital realm and to some extent in the real world, does suggest there may be validity to the notion of the echo chamber. We read the papers with the perceived biases we support, we watch programs which espouse the ideas we enjoy, and on digital platforms block people we don’t agree with or find ‘toxic’. Is that as damaging as the problem it’s trying to resolve? whether you agree being surrounded by those of a familiar mindset is an issue I suppose will answer that question.

My response to Megans article and the standpoint I discussed in August last year was a necessity to maintain discourse with those of an opposing viewpoint or ideology. We perhaps underestimate the impact the digital environment has had on our ability to digest news and influence we take into our private domain. I generally as a rule for this blog and page avoid extreme ideologies of the right and left, equally I won’t block or mute individuals as long as they remain within the law. In the UK for example, calling for someone to be ‘attacked’ is a clear divide for being ‘cancelled’. I support neither stand point, but one from a legal standpoint inciting violence is legally prosecutable standpoint. Kicking someone off Twitter isn’t. My concern then is, I can accept Dr Blank’s contention as an individual we are a broad church whose influence is shaped by a multitude of influences both in the digital arena and outside. However, by looking to combat toxicity of thought, a fairly subjective notion in itself, where there is no legal objection or challenge to the views exposed only that we may not agree with them, we are reducing that broad influence and opening ourselves up to be susceptible to the dangers of the echo chamber.

Thank you for your time, and please continue to have conversations.

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3 thoughts on “Toxicity and the Danger of the Echo Chamber

  1. Just curious but how do you think individuals should respond to such things. In other words to look at this not from a level of discourse but a psychological one
    People are increasingly talking about their mental fragility, need for safe spaces, being triggered etc.
    I noted one blogger prevented herself from seeing a coronavirus hashtag because it was harming her mental health but prevents her from seeing any relevant or helpful information. She then advised others to do the same even though this limits their access to useful news and information.

    In another interaction I was surprised when expanding someone’s idea they took umbridge and reprimanded me for telling them what their experience was. I was very taken aback as I’d simply been adding points to the topic. Things they hadn’t mentioned and well I’m not psychic I can’t assume what they know until it’s communicated. Instead of sharing, or correcting they flew into attack mode. If you engage with someone only to have them assume an overly defensive stance it’s difficult to try and talk, not just for you but they lock themselves down as well.

    These personal psychological stances have an impact as well… At least I think so and I’m not sure what the solution is other than to say don’t lock yourself in the echo chamber of your own demise.

    1. It’s a difficult one to apply a solution towards. One of the interesting stand points in creating this article and a challenge I set myself was to test the premise of the best argument against the foundation, whether in fact an ‘echo chamber’ mentality could exist. I can respect the premise of that particular challenge in that it relies upon people only seeing one particular side of the debate, the danger of course as implied you then alienate a balanced perspective but more and more you see private companies closing off, or filtering content to remove triggering or provocative information. If there is a legal standpoint I can understand that, but when its simply something ‘we don’t like’ that, for me personally, is where I start to see an issue.

      Probably the best way to find a ‘solution’ would be for these companies to openly declare their biases or state of being. Ie, are they a private company in which case they can be selective on what is and isn’t display but liable then as a publisher for any illegal content or a public utility, where you can post freely with no controls.

      From a psychological stance, your phone doesn’t mute or block certain words however you don’t leave your phone at home with the possibility you could get a call with these words or phrases. And yet more and more social media companies are walking this line between being a publisher and utility without committing to one either way for fear of repercussions from Government. It would, in my opinion, provide clarity and I would venture peace of mind to users in how and where they express themselves if they knew one particular platform was a ‘public space’ and one was a ‘private setting’.

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