Social media is transforming the way we engage with one another, often striking a delicate balance between bringing ourselves closer together and isolating each other. What social media has shown us is that humans love interacting with other people. We love having others agree with us, and we love jumping on social bandwagons and lashing out at others with opposing opinions just as much, some times.
Let’s look at a topical example of social media usage, like US politics. Here, research from MIT has shown that not only do Trump and Clinton supporters live in their own little social bubbles on Twitter, but that the nature of these bubbles is very different too. Trump supporters form a cohesive bubble, whereas Clinton supporters are more broad in their interactions.
What is a social media bubble or ‘echo chamber’?
Wikipedia defines an echo chamber as this:
A metaphorical description of a situation in which information, ideas, or beliefs are amplified or reinforced by communication and repetition inside a defined system.
In reality, this manifests itself in the form of polarised and isolated groups, in which people tend to promote their favorite narratives, while ignoring conflicting ones and resisting information that doesn’t conform to their pre-existing beliefs. This should be of grave concern to those who support science communication as a narrative whereby we simply fling facts at people and then expect them to change their beliefs as a result of this. This is the sort of arrogant elitism that actually puts people off, rather than winning them over.
Recent research has even shown that people won’t use science in a ‘rational’ way that we might expect, but rather to justify and reinforce their pre-existing beliefs, and even become more partisan in the process.
But do you know what’s worse than having a personal echo chamber? Remaining silent.
And do you know what’s worse than only listening to like-minded people? Listening to no-one at all.
Features of an echo chamber
The notion that an echo chamber exists as a self-congratulatory, monochromatic, static entity seems to me quite simplistic. It’s a nice way of dismissing someone’s efforts or viewpoint, which makes it quite appealing to wield around in arguments instead of, oh I don’t know, providing useful evidence or commentary.
Anyway, all you really have to do is spend 5 minutes on any social media channel to see the range and diversity of perspectives, experiences, cultures, belief systems, backgrounds, and personalities around, and you will realise that the concept of an ‘echo chamber’ is pretty complicated.
So here are the questions I’m going to be thinking more about in the future, in the context of science communication and academia:
- What is the information composition of an echo chamber?
- How permeable are chamber walls?
- How do we expand or perforate the chamber?
- How do we ‘break’ into someone else’s chamber?
- To what extent do different chambers overlap?
- How does scientific research behave compared to different types of information in these dynamics?
Does ‘open science’ have an echo chamber problem?
I would hypothesise that the problem is perhaps not as bad as it seems, or is sometimes communicated. Or at least, is much more complicated than one might imagine. Small chambers might exist, but do you know what we also call them when we’re not being negative? We call them communities. Where like-minded people come together for support, discussion, or simply to recognise the existence of a commonality. We don’t call it an LGBT ‘echo chamber’ because it’s where the LGBT people go to for support, discussion, or advice – we call it a community. We don’t call it a ‘Christian echo chamber’ because everyone reads from the Bible. We call them communities, or congregations.
So one extra question to answer would be ‘When do we define an echo chamber as a community?’
There’s a lot of research out there on how social platforms like Facebook algorithmically and personally create echo chambers for users. But it gets hurled around quite a bit too, especially by academics. For example, the ‘open access echo chamber’ is often used in a fairly perjorative sense to attack those who support the principles of open. And vice versa, some ‘open advocates’ might use the slur ‘legacy publishers’ in the context of an out-dated echo chamber within the scholarly publishing industry (guilty).
As someone ‘inside’ the ‘open echo chamber’, I don’t see it as that. I genuinely see it as a community, where different voices are amplified and listened to, and where new and conflicting perspectives are discussed and embraced. Anyone who has ever attended an event like OpenCon can testify to this.
To that end, the creation of ‘echo chambers’ actually could be positive in bringing people together. It’s just what we do subsequently that becomes important.
Break down walls, burst bubbles, and build bridges
We create magic in this world when we break down walls and replace them with bridges. That is one major principle driving the ‘open movement’, and emphasised quite a lot at this year’s OpenCon, with the added dimension of the dark political times in the USA.
What we need then is to figure out how to break down chamber walls should they exist, pop bubbles, and find ways of engaging people and groups – especially those who might feel isolated for whatever reason – and do a better job of connecting people in the future.
One way to not go about this as scientists, which is often not only performed by celebrities, but praised and applauded at, is to throw facts at people and expect their entire belief systems to collapse. And then look around in arrogant bewilderment when that doesn’t work. This matters for everything, from showing graphs about climate change and evolution, all the way through to, oh I dunno, the massive increase in prices in subscription fees to publishers.
Scientific engagement should not be a publicity stunt
If you want to break down barriers, if you want to win hearts and minds, then you have to do so on a deeper, and often more personal level. This involves listening often being the first step. It doesn’t matter if you’re an ‘expert’ on something or not; engagement needs context to work with, and you don’t get this by simply blasting out information. A huge problem here is that often scientists will equate ‘science’ with ‘evidence’ or ‘reason’, and therefore expect attitudes to change when presented with research. If you come from a platform of purely science, and refuse to actually do anything to engage on a personal level, don’t be surprised when people resist or begin ‘hating on’ experts and expertise.
This is actually a fairly unpopular opinion among scientists, because it means that science, shockingly, does not hold all the answers and is not always right. It also means that they have to talk to people, and from a platform of equal level, and that’s something that a culture perforated by rife egotism and arrogance isn’t exactly fond of.
Look at science celebrities, like Prof. Brian Cox, who thinks that simply showing a graph to a ‘climate change denier’, a term again which I’m sure they love to be called, will be enough to convince them of the reality of it. What utter elitist, arrogant, and naive bullshit. But in this example, look at how he’s cheered on by the baying crowd. I’m sure the ‘denialist’ went home and had a long, hard look at the science behind climate change as a result. One simple rule of scientific engagement that I shouldn’t even have to write here really is: Don’t be a twat about it.
We’ve had scientific evidence of dramatic climate change now for decades, and still people resist it in various ways, so clearly there is something more to engagement than just ‘science = opinion.’ Go out there and find why people don’t accept it. Expand your bubble, and try and understand theirs. You learn by engaging, not by pompously wielding facts around like some superior overlord of science.
And you know what? No matter what someone’s views on something might be, I guarantee you you’ll have a much more progressive and respectful dialogue with them once you get off that mighty high horse that science has propped you up on. A surprising number of people discuss things rationally when you don’t come across like a pompous asshole.
Recognise that different people think differently to you and have different beliefs. That’s a way of breaking out of an ivory tower, and using your knowledge to make a real and lasting difference for people.
Curiosity taught the cat about climate change
If you want to make a real change, get people curious! Science is exciting enough by itself. Look at the impacts and history of climate change – use it tell personal stories, to construct narratives and meaningful messages, and let the natural curiosity we have as humans do the rest.
Put it into context. Why does someone not accept the scientific evidence? What is their personal reason for not doing so? Don’t make them feel shit for it, that is quite literally the worst possible approach you could take.
Find the angle, make it work. It starts by acknowledging that facts are never enough.
The point is that echo chambers are a collective responsibility to avoid, and we should do more to pop them and embrace alternative viewpoints to our own, and engage with them with civility.