Politics through the echo chamber

Alex Spencer 6 June 2020
Source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/missrogue/323391239

Echo chambers create a false consensus which polarises politics and prompts a self-reinforcing, one-sided form of persuasion.

If there is one thing that the last three years have taught me, it is that the Cambridge student consensus rarely, if ever, reflects a broader national sentiment. Devastated social media reactions to the 2019 election results were evidence enough that students had to some extent convinced themselves that they were part of a larger unanimous movement against Conservative government. This is not to belittle these opinions, but note that, in a climate where we are channelled into social media echo chambers, we are often presented with a warped, unrealistic assessment of the British political landscape. A study of 2.7 billion tweets between 2009 and 2016 found that machine-learning algorithms could predict the partisan leanings of Twitter users with an 80% accuracy, indicating that the echo chamber is no illusory concept.

At its most basic level, the apparent bubble of social media algorithms tends to inhibit an ability to appreciate the pluralistic opinions in our society. A late-night foray into anti-Trump media on Facebook, for example, prevents subsequent exposure, without active effort, to the stance presented in Republican videos. We are passively blinded against right-wing American political comment, and the glimpses we do see into this side of politics are often through the lens of our echo chamber, presented in the carefully edited clips curated by channels such as NowThis or Occupy Democrats. The same can be said in British politics, where our view of Conservative policy is unavoidably coloured by its targeted portrayal, both in social media news outlets and in student journalism itself. If you also see an alarming amount of Owen Jones on your news feed, then you are also aware that Tory policy seen through his eyes will never appear understandable or rational. It is almost impossible to understand the opposing stance when it is presented in such a deliberately malicious tone.

To argue that apparently bigoted or misguided opinions do not in fact deserve to be understood is to exist as the product of an echo chamber. For while its most fundamental characteristic is to reinforce our pre-conceived opinions, its unconscious, and most divisive, effect is in fact to mould our rhetoric and method of conviction. Echo chambers impact not only what we think, but why we so firmly believe it, and why we can rarely sympathise with an oppositional view.

Labour support on social media and, in fact, in Varsity, thrives on an optimism inherent in its ideology, which targets a greater egalitarianism to the benefit of the worst-affected areas of society. Conservative arguments operate on different basis, where an inexorable realism consistently seeks to delegitimise this optimism within Labour politics. The student echo chamber serves only to solidify the contrasting parameters which spur the loyalties of each viewpoint. The more we see ideological or character-based takedowns of Conservative politicians, the more we view this technique as sufficient to discredit their argument. Yet in Conservative circles – not that I have access to very many – the moralism inherent in Labour politics is exploited to the opposite effect, to mock its supposed idealism. The increased use of these echoed techniques serves only to alienate opposing opinions, and further polarise student politics. It has created a rhetorical wall between opinions that inhibits constructive argument. When contrasting parameters of argument are so concretised by echo chambers, it becomes fruitless to seek debate which can yield no ground, and we are turned inwards further.

The pitfalls of this progression for a Labour party bent on augmenting its nationwide appeal are apparent. The 2019 election campaign was characterised by this same moralistic conviction which served well to convince those already on side. The party used rhetorical techniques which were often only persuasive to those with a prior ideological investment in the party’s core ideals. Student social media only added to this echo chamber, often imposing moral damnation on friends who dared vote the other way – it became such a truism to denounce Conservative hypocrisy and failures that the idea that anyone could disagree seemed unimaginable. Once again, the aim here is not to discredit these sentiments, but emphasise how they took on a form of false unanimity on account of a self-reinforcing journalistic climate.

Aside from polarising our political discussion, echo chamber student politics have thus caused us to attribute a universality to our political sentiments. The ongoing media persecution of Dominic Cummings hinges on much of the rhetorical character already discussed here. Outrage stems at its core from a moralistic disgust at his hypocrisy and lack of empathy with the struggle of the nation. I, for one, agree with the reproaches, but then of course I would, on account of the mutually reinforcing rhetorical parameters I am consistently exposed to. An awareness of the echo chamber thus forces me to doubt the national popularity of a student consensus, as well as the organic nature of my opinions. Should I really support such a vehement, and personal, attack on an individual who broke the law and travelled to see his family? It is certainly a justified frustration, but it is doubtful whether it warrants the force it has now assumed, and indeed whether the level of social media outrage is the view of the majority.

Of course, it may be that a genuinely national sentiment has developed against Cummings, but this is not the point. The issue is that we do not know, and that our journalistic echo chambers have convinced many of us that we do. It does not fundamentally matter whether our political opinions are in alignment with the consensus or not, but it does when we assume a unanimity to our opinion that both belittles our ability for persuasion and polarises the opposition. It is conducive to the one-sided, and often misleading consensus journalism to which we are often exposed today.