Social Media Reinforcing Narrow-minded Prejudices Via Digital Echo Chambers.

Social Media Reinforcing Narrow-minded Prejudices Via Digital Echo Chambers.


What used to be the preserve of a few journalists and editors has now opened up in media and social media companies. It is called the Echo Chamber.

Observers of journalism in the mass media describe an echo chamber effect in media discourse. One purveyor of information will make a claim, which many like-minded people then repeat, overhear, and repeat again (often in an exaggerated or otherwise distorted form) until most people assume that some extreme variation of the story is true.

In the ideological narratives in any society, echo chambers have been used for time immemorial. History writing, literature and poetry was one such way in early times.

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In today’s world of social media, the echo chambers are formed by the social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter. Here a certain number of like minded people share the same content over and over again until it is believed to be true.

In one group – which constitutes an echo chamber – the engagement across topics also increases tremendously. In fact a WEF article says that a “new like on the same conspiracy topic increases the probability to pass to a new one by 12%”.

A study by Cornell University says something very interesting on how the Social Media engagement works, specially in terms of promoting conspiracy theories.

Social media enabled a direct path from producer to consumer of contents changing the way users get informed, debate, and shape their worldviews. Such a {\em disintermediation} weakened consensus on social relevant issues in favor of rumors, mistrust, and fomented conspiracy thinking — e.g., chem-trails inducing global warming, the link between vaccines and autism, or the New World Order conspiracy.

In this work, we study through a thorough quantitative analysis how different conspiracy topics are consumed in the Italian Facebook. By means of a semi-automatic topic extraction strategy, we show that the most discussed contents semantically refer to four specific categories: {\em environment}, {\em diet}, {\em health}, and {\em geopolitics}. We find similar patterns by comparing users activity (likes and comments) on posts belonging to different semantic categories. However, if we focus on the lifetime — i.e., the distance in time between the first and the last comment for each user — we notice a remarkable difference within narratives — e.g., users polarized on geopolitics are more persistent in commenting, whereas the less persistent are those focused on diet related topics. Finally, we model users mobility across various topics finding that the more a user is active, the more he is likely to join all topics. Once inside a conspiracy narrative users tend to embrace the overall corpus.

It is clear that social media is not just utilizing the mechanics of echo chamber to promote membership but also perpetuate the prejudices in the global populace.

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Conspiracy Theories set the ground

Incredibly, the conspiracy theories and engagement with them while creating consensus amongst ideological groups – or Echo Chambers – set the foundation for getting people ready for work on real issues. Once the ideological bias has been created and reinforced by conspiracy theories, it is easier to set the narratives on other issues.

Our results show that polarized communities emerge around distinct types of contents and usual consumers of conspiracy news result to be more focused and self-contained on their specific contents. To test potential biases induced by the continued exposure to unsubstantiated rumors on users’ content selection, we conclude our analysis measuring how users respond to 4,709 troll information—i.e. parodistic and sarcastic imitation of conspiracy theories. We find that 77.92% of likes and 80.86% of comments are from users usually interacting with conspiracy stories.

The polarized users are more committed to the content from their ideological group than those who don’t interact much on the conspiracy content. Having like minded friends and followers increases the engagement of a person in a specific narrative. This is what creates viral content within communities.

Incredibly once the bias is set, it is very tough to share content that is counter to the narrative (or debunking content). In the final column for debunking fake news, a Washington Post writer shared the disappointment on how fruitless the whole exercise seemed to be. Once the ideological narrative was set, it was set! Debunking exercise worked in the opposite way!

I’ve spoken to several researchers and academics about this lately, because it’s started to feel a little pointless. Walter Quattrociocchi, the head of the Laboratory of Computational Social Science at IMT Lucca in Italy, has spent several years studying how conspiracy theories and misinformation spread online, and he confirmed some of my fears: Essentially, he explained, institutional distrust is so high right now, and cognitive bias so strong always, that the people who fall for hoax news stories are frequently only interested in consuming information that conforms with their views — even when it’s demonstrably fake.

Setting the Counter Narrative to Counter Narrow-minded Group-think

Biases and hardening of stances seems to be reinforced by the participation in a similar minded conversations. What social media has done is to bring like minded folks together and that is what the social networks do – connect similar folks together. This scenario and structure obviates any other narrative taking seed in people’s minds. Ultimately leading to a more polarized population. In an interesting experiment, when Republicans and Democrats were in their own group, any issue went ahead in similar narrative. But when mixed, the aggression was much less.

In my research, when Republicans and Democrats were put in separate groups and each group was asked to discuss a derogatory rumor about the other party (e.g., “Republicans are uneducated;” “Democrats give less to charity”) beliefs in these rumors polarized in predictable directions. When the discussion groups were mixed, this did not happen.

Progressively therefore, social media is making people narrow minded the world over.  In areas like education, in order to create a wider dissemination of more and broader ideas, the echo chambers that have been perpetuated by the Social Media need to be countered.  Extra work is needed to introduce counter-arguments and ideas for new directions to set in.  Specifically for research.  Group-think is something that could spell doom for education in the long term.

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Books on Group-think and Political Echo Chambers


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