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Echo Chambers

January 10, 2020posts politics social

During the last weekend, I attended the 2020 version of the Harvard US India Initiative in Mumbai. I had found about it through a college junior who had applied for the same. After a quick lookup, it seemed worth attending once, and the speaker lineup interested me the most. For people who know me since before college (2011-ish), you might be known of a blog which I used to write. Around my class 11-12 period, and even a few years before that, I had this strong urge of changing the wrong things and making things work for good. The whole HUII experience kind of revives that feeling, and reminds me of the good and the bad.

I primarily wanted to attend the panels on media, politics and society, which I fortunately was assigned. These have been my most loved topics of all time. The blog which I mentioned, was called Future Makers, where I wrote about pressing (I thought) social and political issues. There were a couple of others who had joined later, before the idea completely faded away. It was not that I did not get enough time to write, or read, but I gradually realised that me broadcasting my views and my version of rightness would not necessarily make people change their behaviour and work towards the good of all. I realised that I could make change happen better if I personally practiced what I thought, and if could atleast make people around me realise what's right and what's wrong. Listening to the panels, and reading the news, I believe this approach might actually work, on my level.

During the conference, I could quite frequently hear the term echo chambers. I was faintly aware of this, but could easily make out what it meant. If you had to interprete literally - chamber is a closed box or a room, and an echo chamber would mean a place which is enclosed and the box repeats (or echoes back) what you say. Echo chamber is used to describe a state in which one is likely to hear from others, only what they believe in, or personally wish to be true.

echo chamber -
an environment in which a person encounters only beliefs or opinions that coincide with their own, so that their existing views are reinforced and alternative ideas are not considered.

This state not only builds up trust in something which might be entirely false, but also weakens the ability to look for alternatives or consider that the primary idea might be false. The panels on Media and Politics made readers and consumers of media aware of such echo chambers, which are very common in the ocean of social media. Whenever I go on Twitter and just read through a thread discussing some issue on national politics, or some recent event that happened, I can see numerous people blindly writing things for the sole purpose of proving that their point is the correct one.

Unfortunately, big media and social media play a crucial role in the formation of these bubbles, or chambers.

  • One is due to the advent of machine learning leading to curated content on one's feed, which means a person is fed more of things they like, and less of things they might think of once in a year.
  • Two is the thought army a.k.a. the IT cell, which, through its online presence, drives what you think.

I have been refraining myself from using an obvious example here, but here you go. Consider you just got to know that a few students have been protesting against the government for a recently passed bill, now an act. You, conventionally a supporter of the government, read what's going on in the capital city, with a prejudice. You browse specific news channels, like a few Tweets by a select few, and form an opinion, which strengthens an initial thought you had about all of this. You begin to think that the students are doing a wrong thing. A new post pops up in your feed which has the story of an incident that took place in a national university a few years back, and reminds you of your stand then. You like the tweet. Then comes a video where a student is supposedly pelting stones at the police. Then a picture of a person in certain attire with a board which has clearly offensive slogan. You go on consuming this content, and the machine learning curve fits well with the ideal case. You form an opinion, the students are obviously wrong, they even are anti-nationals for going against the government.

It is painful to see such things happening around you and not being able to help. Echo chambers are formed unknowingly, and are hard to recognize from within. They can be regarding trivial matters like who is the GOAT in football, to very severe ones like whether the government is right. I had read an article sometime back, which talked about the art of grey thinking. It talked about how we always try to fit things into certain definitions, or classes. The right, the left, the pro-government, the anti-government. We need to think in greys. The world isn't a machine learning classification problem! The world is beautiful in its continuity, with no two things being discrete. A person who thinks that the government is doing well, can question one particular decision taken by it. Someone who is a staunch critic of the establishment can praise it for a particular initiative. Let us please not try to classify things into borders, we already have enough of them.

I know this is a subjective issue, and has no specific solution. The more we are aware, the more we find ourselves able to question things, the more can we agree to disagree.

~ 10 January, 2020 3:32 AM