How do Echo Chambers work?

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There’s this old allegory created by the Greek philosopher Plato on how human beings perception of reality is flawed. If you’re quite fond of memes you’ve probably encountered something that resembles this:

platos cave meme

The way the allegory works is that Plato proposes that there are three people in a deep dark cave and they have been chained up in this cave all of their lives. They are chained up to face the cave wall and the only light source comes from the fire behind them that casts shadows onto the wall, these shadows and sounds moving along the wall are the only thing these prisoners know and therefore it has become their only perception of what the believe to be reality.

There’s some different interpretations of the story and it’s quite old so there’s also a lot of different versions of the allegory as well. The one above us depicts the prisoners chained up and the shadows are created by mysteries cloaked figures who march up and down to puppeteer these shadows and sounds in the cave and thus control the prisoners perception of what is in fact real. Other versions of the tale say there isn’t any hooded figures or fire, the light comes from the entrance of the cave and when people or animals pass by the entrance the light from the sun creates a shadow on the cave wall and therefore they’re seeing a version of reality that is only a fragment of what is actually out there.

The one consistency between these different versions of the allegory is that at some point one of the prisoners escapes from his chains and begins to walk around, eventually finding the entrance. When he exits the cave he is astonished to find out that everything he knew was a lie, or at the very least a half truth of what the world was actually like. The light is blinding, the objects and people and animals are three dimensional and consist of colours and textures that he had never been exposed to in the cave. His entire perception of reality has changed, forever.

Now there’s some different versions of how this story ends. The first one I encountered was the version in which as soon as the prisoner was exposed to the light and complexities of the real world he became terrified and confused by its vast wonders and therefore he retreated back into the cave to continue staring at the shadows on the cave because this perception of reality was more comfortable for him. He chose to be willfully ignorant of the real world in order to pursue a more comfortable narrative.

The other version tells us when the prisoner does escape from the cave he is astonished and is then happy at his discovery. He decides to return to the cave in order to tell the other prisoners about what he has seen so they too can be free. But when he returns to the cave he finds that because of his exposure to the bright light of the world that his eyes are unadjusted to make his way through the darkness. Once he finds the other prisoners they think he’s a raving lunatic, rejecting his perception of reality and in some versions they even plot to kill him.

There’s a lot to take into account when interpreting this story. The historical significance of course is that Plato was the student of Socrates, another Greek philosopher who was executed by the state for committing blasphemy. Seeing as how the allegory of the cave was a part of Plato’s Republic, a book that largely criticized the way the Greeks governed and disparaged the credibility of democracy it’s easy to see how this allegory was essentially Plato throwing bucket loads of shade at the Athenian government for killing his teacher for basically saying “Zeus ain’t got shit one me” and ridiculing the stupid conceptions of reality.

There’s a lot of potential interpretations of this tale. There’s the religious interpretation where man at first is ignorant of all things as he’s only shown a reality that is simple and uncomplicated, only when he escapes his confines and ventures out of his cave that he finds the world he’s perceived is only a fraction of what is out there- like how we can’t perceive the full glory of God and Heaven, we can only see the shadows and those who venture out of these caves are enlightened. He has found meaning and purpose and has discovered the divine nature of all things.

There’s the scientific interpretation. In which ignorance and religious dogma have shielded us from the answers to how things actually work. When we started out in the cave we only saw the shadows and we identified these shadows with reality and reality exists because of God therefore God  controls reality. We think ourselves special because we’re the only people to observe these shadows. In the wake of scientific curiosity religious institutions wanted to find out how everything works, to see how God controls reality. A humble start to explore everything around us, we escaped the chains. Eventually we escaped the cave and our previous conception at how things worked…well, changed. The idea of an all powerful, all knowing and all loving God became less and less likely as we discovered the world wasn’t flat or had corners and the sky above us didn’t hold another ocean above the firmament, contradicting Genesis. We found that human beings had been on earth for over 100,000 years- contradicting the creation story. We found out that humans could only live up to 124 years old, which contradicted Noah who lived up to 600. We found out that the universe was 14.5 billion years old and has always been expanding at an exponential rate, we found out that the earth is 4.54 billion years old and there has been five mass extinctions since the planet had become fertile. So the question is if the universe is so vast, so full of life that grows and perishes in the blink of an eye and burns in pointless coincidences- what makes us special? Why in 14.5 billion years and an observable universe that is 46.5 billion light years wide and an unobservable universe that is potentially infinite and potentially full of life- why would God care about us? Are we so arrogant to think that this world is made for us, ours to exploit? In the cave we were naive enough to think because we saw the shadows on the wall and made us important…but out in the sun light we’re not important, we’re irrelevant. And that’s terrifying.

That’s not even going into the interpretation that our entire reality is a simulation. Like the Matrix. I mean our perception of reality is vastly limited. We can’t see the insides of a body unless we cut it open, so for all we know we could be hollow until the program renders some internal organs when they’re exposed to our vision. We can’t see the bacteria on our hands without a microscope so the simulation might have just invented them on the spot to make us think that there are things that are remarkably smaller than what we can see. We can’t see the stars and planets in much detail without a telescope- maybe there’s no such thing as space, maybe it’s just an empty area that the simulation has rendered up very quickly. The edges of our assigned location. Maybe the reason there’s no air in space is because the simulation can’t handle controlling an area bigger than the earth- like when you’re playing a video game and you’re moving outside of the map or designated area and the game kills you automatically. Is pain real? It could just be simulated reactions to touching certain objects or consuming certain products. Are memories real? How do we know it’s not just like Blade Runner and we were created only twenty minutes ago but because of our implanted memories we think we’re the continuation of a species that has thrived for 12,000 years? Surely we are real because we can think? But what if our thoughts were pre-programmed? Reinforced by the shadows on the walls that confirm our affirmations about the existence of reality? Why would anyone invest in a simulation this expansive? Would a company create a simulation to see how successful a new product would do in the eye’s of the public? Perhaps in this supposed real world they wanted to find out what the world would look like if Caesar had been assassinated, if Hitler lost world war two, if Reagan had survived his assassination, if a certain thing had been changed one way or another how would that effect the course of history and humanity as a whole? Is this the real world, or is this just a different chamber in the cave?

bro plato

Of course this is a mind boggling subject and there are lots and lots of different interpretations to this allegory. But today we’ll be focusing solely on the political ramifications of the subject.

The modern political climate is an alienating one, with the rise of fake news and the toxic divide among certain issues. The amount of abuse you’ll see people hurl out at each other like monkeys tossing shit- especially to people online who disagree with them. It’s no wonder you’ll see people lose interest or hope in the political process. People feeling the need to disengage.

Now a large part of this is due to the conflicting nature of political ideologies, polar opposite world views clashing, the spread of misinformation by trolls to create political discord, media outlets desperate for attention continue to print click bait articles and skewer the truth in order to create maximum outrage, a viscous cycle of bullshit and profit. For the optimist its difficult to understand how the world could operate like this for so long, but for the pessimist it’s simple to understand- people are cunts.

Now with different world views and political ideologies and the rise of social media there has been the emergence of what people refer to as the Echo Chamber effect. Now an echo chamber is described as a situation where certain ideas, beliefs or data points are reinforced through repetition of a closed system that does not allow for the free movement of alternative or competing ideas or concepts. In an echo chamber, there is the implication that certain ideas or outcomes win out because of an inherent unfairness in how input is gathered.

The consequences of receiving your news and media consumption from social media is that it tailors to your already aligned biases. If you’re an Irish Nationalist you’ll only see stories and memes that you agree with, likewise if you’re a Unionist. This is because media outlets like Facebook are tailored to advertise to a specific individuals specific interests. Depending on what Facebook says you like or are interested in that allows them to advertise things that Facebook believes you would be interested in. This algorithm is perfectly harmless when it comes to movies or video games or other trivial interests. But when it comes to politics then it becomes far more concerning because Facebook will have tailored your feed to show you stories and subjects that you probably agree with. There is no diverse range of opinions or differing perspectives when the algorithm has been tailored for your perspective, there’s no editor on your social media feed to make sure everything has been fact checked. This scenario is creating the shadows on your very own cave wall.

In the UK a study found that because of the rise of Social Media it allows for the abundance of political echo chambers to emerge. In this case the study showed that people who supported UKIP and people who supported the SNP were less likely to interact with people who had differing political opinions to their own. Unlike people who supported Labour or the Conservatives who were much more likely to interact with people of different mindsets.

Now personally I don’t think echo chambers are all that new. I mean today it’s far more dangerous with the rise of deliberate misinformation campaigns by foreign hostile nations and think tanks. It’s a hell of a lot easier for people to be recruited for a terrorist organisation or adhere to the political actions of their own ideology. But people have always surrounded themselves with other people who generally agree with their own opinions, they read the same newspapers that pander to their already established prejudices.

Only now has there been an emergence of complete and utter misinformation and lies to create political discord and the failings of the mainstream media to compete with new media outlets on a platform they can’t control, unlike TV the internet is untameable.

If you live in this echo chamber you’ll have a hard time differentiating fact from fiction, considering that if one Facebook page or Twitter account you trust with your news publishes twelve articles a day and at least three of them are blatantly false you won’t even notice because you already trust this network. You don’t question what you’re reading. Especially considering almost nobody checks the sources of the articles, or even reads the articles- most people just read the headline and they carry on scrolling down their feed, without stopping to think about what they just read.

This echo chamber effect can be quite dangerous. To understand it’s ramifactions we’re going to look at the example of one country; The United States of America. For our case study we’re going to focus on one individual, this guy:

don

For those of you who don’t know who this is, his name is Donald John Trump. He’s currently the 45th President of the United States of America. I say currently because I’m not too sure if he’s going to be here too long or even finish his first term, that’s not up to me to say. That’s up to Robert Mueller.

He was sworn in as president on January 20th and so far he’s been doing a great job. I mean, outside that time he initiated a pointless travel ban, tried and failed to repeal Obama care three times, pulled out of the Paris Agreement for no reason, Ridiculed the mayor of London Sadhiq Khan after the London Bridge attack, initiated a Transgender ban for the US military, Fired James Comey for investigating Michael Flynn’s connections to Russia, Shared classified Israeli intelligence to a Russian ambassador, Lied about Obama wiretapping him, Insulted a Puerto Rican mayor after she complained about the failure of relief efforts after Hurricane Irma, appointed his daughter Ivanka as his assistant, Appointed his son in law Jared Kushner as senior adviser to the president and put him in charge of fixing the opioid crisis and solving the Middle east and infrastructure, appointing Rex Tillerson as his Secretary of State despite his lack of experience and the fact he has connections to Russia, appointed Scott Pruitt as the head of the EPA even though he’s unqualified and doesn’t believe in Climate Change and has sued the EPA several times, appointed Rick Perry as director of the Department of Energy even though he wanted to get rid of it and didn’t know what it did (it handles the nukes), Trump refuses to attend intel meetings, during a military strategy meeting the Generals had to explain to Trump why he couldn’t just nuke people, Trump doesn’t know what the 25th Amendment was despite being head of state, Trump abandoned an alliance with longtime middle eastern ally Qatar over Twitter despite having troops stationed there, When discussing his perception of the Israel-Palestine conflict with the Israeli Prime minister during a press conference everyone in the room laughed, Trump decided to bomb an airstrip in Syria despite being advised against it and didn’t even successfully destroy the airstrip because it would be up and running the next day, Trump failed to condemn Nazis, Trump started ridiculing NFL players who took a knee during the National Anthem with more ferocity than he did with actual Nazis, Trump suggesting that NBC News should have it’s license revoked for spouting “Fake News” even though it’s contradictory to the First Amendment, Trump has spent millions of Tax payer dollars on going to Marilago almost every weekend to play golf despite complaining about Obama going on holiday and playing golf, For the first few months Melanis Trump didn’t live in the wite house but stayed in New York which cost millions in Tax payer money, many people in Trumps cabinet use private email servers despite the fact Trump criticized Hillary Clinton for operating a private server, Trump threatened to Annihilate North Korea, Trump pardoned Sheriff Arpaio even though he had not yet been convicted of the crimes he had committed (the crime being breaking federal laws in order to racially discriminate against Latino/Hispanic people who he believed to be illegal immigrants because of their ethnicity), Trump needed to be explained eleven times that by Angela Merkel that he couldn’t just make a trade deal with Germany without going through the EU first, Trump called NATO obsolete, Trump had to be explained about the complexities of North Korea by the President of China and then took that intel on face value, Trump wanted a tenfold increase in his Nuclear arms capacity, Trump undermined his secretary of State Rex Tillerson by saying he shouldn’t bother talking with North Korea during his diplomatic efforts and then continued to rise tensions by referring to Kim Jong Un as “Rocket Man”, Trump regularly has to have his appointed staff flatter him so that he can have an ego boost, Trump repealed the DACA program, Trump has talked about repealing the diplomatic efforts with Cuba, Trump has talked about taking the US out of the Iran deal, Trump has threatened to remove first responders from Puerto Rico, Trumps tax plan gives giant tax breaks to the wealthy and would mean there would be no money for infrastructure, Trumps budget proposal had a $2 trillion dollar math error, Trump repealed the funding for a program that prevented Female genital mutilation, Trump made a deal with the big farms so that ICE wouldn’t deport their workers, Trump lied about the size of his inauguration crowd, Trump praised Bill O’Reilly after he had been fired over several accounts of sexual harassment, Trump cut the funding for meals on wheels even though it’s a primary service for elderly people, Trump failed to staff 2,000 vacant executive branch positions, Trump declared the mainstream media was the enemy of the people, Trump held a nuclear strategy session in the public dining room of Marilago, Trump condemned a private company for dropping his daughters unpopular clothing line, Trump caused controversy after a very negative phone call with the Australian prime minister and Trump suggested that they create a cyber security service with the Russian government even though The Russian government had used cyber security to influence the outcome of the election… but outside of that everything has been going fine.

Now despite having access to the best intel the US government has to offer, Trump watches six hours of TV a day. This includes the morning talk shows like Fox & Friends and Morning Joe. He also follows forty six people on twitter:

Trump Family

Melania Trump @MELANIATRUMP
Ivanka Trump @IvankaTrump
Vanessa Trump @MrsVanessaTrump
Tiffany Ariana Trump @TiffanyATrump
Lara Trump @LaraLeaTrump
Eric Trump @EricTrump
The White House and Trump Campaign
The White House @WhiteHouse
Mike Pence @mike_pence
Official Team Trump @TeamTrump
Reince Priebus @Reince
Corey R. Lewandowski @CLewandowski_
Dan Scavino Jr. @DanScavino (Personal account)
Dan Scavino Jr. @Scavino45
Kellyanne Conway @KellyannePolls
Michael Cohen @MichaelCohen212
Katrina Pierson @KatrinaPierson

 

Trump Business

Trump Organization @Trump

Trump Golf @TrumpGolf

Trump Washington DC @TrumpGolfDC
Trump Charlotte @TrumpCharlotte
Trump National Doral @TrumpDoral
Trump Waikiki @TrumpWaikiki
Trump Vegas Hotel @TrumpLasVegas
Trump Hotel Chicago @TrumpChicago
Trump Los Angeles @TrumpGolfLA
Media

 

Geraldo Rivera @GeraldoRivera
Piers Morgan @piersmorgan
Ann Coulter @AnnCoulter
Laura Ingraham @IngrahamAngle
Sean Hannity @seanhannity
Fox Nation @foxnation
Bill O’Reilly @oreillyfactor
Greta Van Susteren @greta
FOX & Friends @foxandfriends
Eric Bolling @ericbolling
Drudge Report @DRUDGE_REPORT
Jesse Watters @jessebwatters
Tucker Carlson @TuckerCarlson

 

Others

Diamond and Silk @DiamondandSilk

Mark Burnett @MarkBurnettTV
Vince McMahon @VinceMcMahon
Roma Downey @RealRomaDowney
Katrina Campins @KatrinaCampins
Gary Player @garyplayer
Carly Booth @CarlyBooth92

Now, personally I kind of find it adorable that out of the forty six people he follows on twitter, six of them are his close family. Well, maybe not so adorable for Ivanka…

But anyway, as you can see we got your typical social media account of a 73 year old man. You got your family, your business accounts, your political spokes people but you also got some News sources. Most of which are related to Fox news or are generally right wing. There’s a saying that there are two America’s; there’s the Liberal America and the Conservative America. Depending on what ideas you adhere to ultimately affects your perception of the type of country you live in.

When researching this I was surprised to find out that Diamond and Silk were two Black women who vlogged on youtube. I was astonished that a man who had become the messianic figure for the Ku Klux Klan and the White Supremicist factions of the Alt Right would be a fan of a vlogging black duo.

Then I watched their videos and it’s basically your common right wing drivel. The kind of shit Ann Coulter says, Americas answer to Katie Hopkins.

Piers Morgan is a repulsive cunt (but hey, that’s just my opinion. I don’t like men who think it’s ok to hack into dead girls phones for a news story) who’s the editor for the Daily Mail in the US and was a contestant on the Celebrity Apprentice.

We get a lot of people who work or are associated with NBC, the network that broadcasted the American Apprentice. We got Katrina Campkins; an actress and business woman who was a contestant on the first season of the apprentice. Mark Burnett is a TV producer and the man who helped set up The Apprentice. His wife Roma Downey is an actress and producer, she’s also from Derry.

Vince McMahon is the CEO of WWE and a Professional Wrestler. Gary Player is a professional golfer from South Africa and so is Carly Booth who’s from Scotland. So its no secret he likes Golf, it’s a game that he’s spent 25% of his Presidency playing and it’s a game he’s notorious for cheating at.

Five hours of TV a day and 46 twitter accounts that sound almost identical doesn’t sound like a healthy media diet. You can actually correlate what Trump is yammering on about in his tweets to what was being said on Fox News that morning. At one point he actually implored the nation to watch Fox & Friends which is…well, it’s fucking weird. Especially for a president. I mean he has the best intel in the world at his finger tips and he wastes a fifth of his day watching the same shit a fucking Pensioner would?

Jesus Christ he’s a fucking weirdo.

I mean I understand a commoner watching Fox News and following Ann Coulter on Twitter. That’s fine. The worst thing he’ll do is get into a twitter spat now and again. Well, I mean that’s not exactly the worst thing he could do. The worst thing he could do would be to shoot up a mosque or an abortion clinic.

But it’s different for a President. Like Jon Stewart says “I can only insult, he can injure” so it should be very concerning that the President of the United States of America, the most powerful nation in the world, lives in his very own echo chamber. It’s dangerous. The media circus parades the shadows along his cave walls and he thinks everyone’s after him (which to be fair, is true) and he lashes out. That’s why you see these stories where the sane people in the White House (Tillerson, Mattis, Mnuchin) have formed a “suicide pact” so if Trump fires one of them, the other two resign. Tillerson and Mattis have even talked about whether or not they should tackle him to the ground if he orders a Nuclear Strike.

So that’s what an echo chamber does. An echo chamber allows you to surround yourself with people and ideas that you agree with. There’s no debate or diversity of thought or differing perceptions of the world. When encountered with a thought they disagree with they’re overly hostile towards it, even if it’s not an offensive or illogical thought hey will be hostile towards it. When given evidence that contradicts their worldview they reject it in favor of their favorable narrative.

I often find it funny when I’m having an argument with one of my friends about politics. Because there’s always this moment where you pop a balloon and they try and act that the plastic coating is still intact and is perfectly functional for holding air. He’s displaying his argument and presenting his world view that, well, is illogical and if implemented would not work at all. I present a counter argument and display how flawed his ideas are and he’s silent for a moment and he gives me this look. Not an angry or resentful look, it’s a look of complete and utter confusion. Because I’ve exposed him to the idea that the shadows on the wall are just shadows, they’re not an accurate representation of reality.

You’ll often see that effect on James Obrien’s show on LBC, where a Leave Voter (I’m not calling them Brexiteers, they sound fucking French) will give his argument and worldview and James will thus dismantle it brick by brick- ushering in that confused silence. They rarely accept the shadow to be shadow, how could they? They’ve been reading the same thing from the same papers all their lives. What else would they know?

To top it all off even if you do disprove a misconception or attempt to correct someone it doesn’t work. What often happens is that because you’ve disproved it the person is even more likely to believe it with more ferocity because they feel intimidated. Like the prisoners in Plato’s cave who reject the escaped prisoner and even plan to kill him. This phenomena is called the backfire effect. It’s a major issue when engaging in political discourse and it’s very difficult to combat.

Then again there’s a bit of narcissism with Plato’s allegory. The people who read it think they are the ones who have escaped the cave and ventured into the light, that everyone else is an unenlightened fool. But what if you haven’t escaped the cave, what if it’s just another cellar with more light and more intricate shadows and sounds? What if it’s a darker chamber with more alluring shadows? What if there is no consistent political reality? What if it’s a bit left and a bit right? A bit Libertarian and a bit Authoritarian? What then?

I don’t know. There is unmistakable bullshit and there are cold, hard, indisputable facts. But each day these facts get a little more blurry. Each day the world makes a little less sense. I don’t know if this echo chamber effect will ever go away, I don’t know if we’ll ever live in a world with reasonable and intellectually honest political discourse, I don’t know if we’ll ever be alright. I don’t know. But at least we’ll have memes.

plato cave bad

 

 

 

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