Just don’t call it an echo chamber

The main thrust of the course correction in studying online information and misinformation has been to challenge the received wisdom that the internet traps us in ideological bubbles of news and opinion we agree with. This pervasive notion among academics, policymakers, and journalists — one overview calls it the ‘echo chambers about echo chambers’ (Guess et al. 2018) — finds little empirical support in large-scale studies of online media habits. Still, the refutation only highlights the need for a better vocabulary to describe the deeply partisan dynamics of the media ecosystem in many countries. As the preceding discussion suggests, a structural view is essential to studying misinformation: where and how it circulates, how it reflects shifting incentives for political elites, and how it becomes a resource for political identity and influences behaviour as a result.

Research on echo chambers and filter bubbles has focused on what might be called the strong version of the hypothesis: that in a high-choice media environment, the preference for congenial information from like-minded sources leads citizens broadly to ‘sort themselves into echo chambers of their own design’, in Sunstein’s (2009, 6) phrase, through selective exposure and/or algorithmic selection. Studies suggest only a small minority of partisans inhabit such bubbles; while evidence is mixed, for most users who do engage with political news online, search engines and social media appear to be a source of diversity (Flaxman et al. 2016; e.g. Dubois and Blank 2018; Fletcher and Nielsen 2018a, 2018b; Eady et al. 2019). An important caveat, though, is that the minority with narrower, ideological news diets also tend to be the most politically engaged (Guess, Lyons, et al. 2018; Tucker et al. 2018). Nyhan (2016) calls this the ‘paradox’ of echo chambers: ‘Few of us live in them, but those who do exercise disproportionate influence over our political system’.

That caveat becomes very important when we consider how misinformation spreads and takes on political valence across discursive networks of media and political actors. For instance, the pandemic offers several cases of flawed research being rapidly ‘weaponised’ to downplay virus risks in a cascading dynamic across right-wing news outlets, conservative voices on social media, and Republican politicians (Bajak and Howe 2020; Starbird et al. 2020). A starker illustration is the perplexing political influence of QAnon, the far-right online subculture and ‘conspiracy movement’born in the wake of the 2016 US election. QAnon metastasised during the pandemic, gaining adherents and absorbing COVID-19 conspiracies into its core narrative of a ‘deep state’ scheming against President Trump (LaFrance 2020). Remarkably, dozens of candidates in 2020 US congressional races endorsed QAnon — some obliquely, others quite openly — in a bid to court Republican primary voters (Rosenberg and Steinhauer 2020). Beliefs cultivated in something like an echo chamber can resonate far beyond it.

Some scholars approach echo chambers in this wider sense: as coordinated, mutually reinforcing patterns of messaging among politicians, partisan media outlets, and outside issue or interest groups (Jamieson and Cappella 2010; Benkler et al. 2018). This is broadly in line with how scholars understand the potential structuring influence of populist or tabloid media, which offer a ready outlet for populist messages, help define an audience for populist politics, and also ‘serve as vehicles reflecting people’s sentiments back’ to populist leaders (Mazzoleni 2008, 54). The question becomes not whether the typical media user is in an ideological bubble that promotes specific attitudes, but how the bubbles that do exist affect political discourse and behaviour more broadly.

Finally, this looser definition of echo chambers raises a thorny question, one that provides a useful cautionary note to conclude this argument for scholarship that looks past individual effects to take a more structural view of mediated misinformation. The question is, what separates harmful echo chambers from the cause- or party-oriented press that forms part of a healthy, pluralistic society? As Nielsen (2020) has observed, ‘the women’s movement, the labor movement, and the civil rights movement were arguably echo chambers in many ways’. Likewise, contemporary movements like #MeToo and Black Lives Matter take shape across ideological media networks used to share information, develop arguments, and build social ties.

What distinguishes harmful echo chambers from healthy digital activism is, precisely, the extent to which they promote dangerous misinformation like QAnon conspiracy theories. Making this distinction requires judgment and may invite disagreement — but no more so than other normatively freighted categories, such as ‘misinformation’ and ‘populism’, which communications scholars employ widely. More important, though, this offers a reminder that the same structural arrangements can and do produce very different outcomes in democratic terms. The challenge is to take seriously how media structures and mediated discourses matter in public life while avoiding the pull of determinism that too often accompanies such perspectives.

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