The Echo Chamber

‘I am actively searching through Facebook for people celebrating the Brexit leave victory, but the filter bubble is SO strong, and extends SO far into things like Facebook’s custom search that I can’t find anyone who is happy despite the fact that over half the country is clearly jubilant today and despite the fact that I’m actively looking to hear what they are saying. This echo-chamber problem is… tearing apart of the fabric of our societies … We’re getting countries where one half just doesn’t know anything at all about the other.’

– Tom Steinberg, Mysociety Founder


In 2016, we agreed to disagree. That’s the consensus on the eve of the American Presidential election, in a year which made scorched earth of the middle ground across the much of the developed world. Studies over the past year, from the Edelman trust barometer to the work of Pew Research Centre, all concur: we are more politically polarised than ever, and this time, it’s personal.


Pew found, for the first time, a majority shift into deeply unfavourable views of the opposition. On the ‘sentiments thermometer’ rated from 0-100, ‘Democrats give Republicans a mean rating of 31 – far lower than the average ratings for five other groups on the thermometer, including military personnel and elected officials. Republicans give Democrats a mean rating of 29; only elected officials (30) and atheists (36) are nearly as low.’ When it comes to their elected representatives, opinions plummet: while Trump scores an average of 11 among Democrats, 82% give him a “very cold” rating (less than 25), 68% give him a zero. Clinton gets an average rating of 12 among Republicans; 76% of Republicans give her a “very cold rating”, of whom 59% rate her at zero.


But this election, more than any other on record, has left trauma in its wake: 55% of Democrats say the Republican Party makes them “afraid,”; 49% of Republicans say the same about the Democrats. ‘Among those highly engaged in politics’, Pew observes, ‘fully 70% of Democrats and 62% of Republicans say they are afraid of the other party.’ As The Atlantic observes, if ‘“Hope” was the keyword that carried many voters through the 2008 and 2012 elections… “fear” has replaced it in 2016’.


The reasons for this polarity are myriad, but one thing is clear: how we consume our media in this digital age is just as divisive as the messages we’re consuming. Google and Facebook are now major news sources, with 65% of American adults using digital sources weekly for election news – up from only 17% in the 2012 elections. As The Guardian’s Katherine Viner explains, ‘algorithms such as the one that powers Facebook’s news feed are designed to give us more of what they think we want – which means that the version of the world we encounter every day in our own personal stream has been invisibly curated to reinforce our pre-existing beliefs.’ We increasingly exist in the echo-chamber – the cost of which is digital ‘empathy wall’ with real world implications.


The further we retreat into digital politics, the further apart we’ll perceive ourselves to be. For the last five years, renowned sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild has been attempting to bridge the gap – immersing herself in the American deep south to overcome the empathy wall for herself. Her resulting book, ‘Strangers in their own Land’, captures a shared ‘deep story’ of loss, stoicism and common ground in a world of difference. Read about her insights in The New Yorker here.