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Free Minds & Free Markets

When an Echo Chamber Gets Worked Up About Echo Chambers

Researchers cast more doubt on the "filter bubble" narrative.

TerapeakTerapeakThe fear of filter bubbles has only grown stronger since Eli Pariser popularized the term at the beginning of the decade. Americans, he warned in his 2011 book The Filter Bubble, are "more and more enclosed in our own little bubbles. Democracy requires a reliance on shared facts; instead we're being offered parallel but separate universes." If you follow elite political discourse, you've probably heard several ever-more-worried versions of that idea.

Or at least I keep hearing them. It's possible that they just seem ubiquitous in my own particular bubble.

Pariser's portrait may be popular, but that doesn't mean it's well-grounded. Four academics—Andrew Guess, Benjamin Lyons, Brendan Nyhan, and Jason Reifler—have just published a skeptical take on the topic. Summarizing several studies, they argue that "the 'echo chambers' narrative captures, at most, the experience of a minority of the public." For example:

In controlled experiments, people do prefer congenial information over uncongenial information—a tendency that is especially prevalent in the domain of politics. People also tend to self-report a filtered media diet.

But studies that actually track people's behavior tell a different story. On television, media outlets with a significant partisan or ideological slant simply do not reach most of the U.S. population. The audience of Fox News and MSNBC peaks at 2 million to 3 million for well-known shows by hosts like Sean Hannity and Rachel Maddow in prime time. By comparison, about 24 million Americans tune into nightly network news broadcasts on NBC, ABC, and CBS and over 10 million viewers watch these networks' Sunday morning political talk shows. These audiences are in turn dwarfed by those for entertainment, where programs like The Big Bang Theory and Sunday Night Football attract as many as 20 million viewers.

The point here isn't that the network newscasts are themselves free of ideology (they aren't!) or that viewers are getting their news from The Big Bang Theory. It's that people aren't as politically self-segregated as the narrative has it, and that the most popular media-consumption tribes aren't organized around news or political commentary at all.

Guess & co. suggest that one reason the filter-bubble narrative is so popular in the press is because it's much more likely to be true of political writers and the people they cover. In the authors' words, "polarized media consumption is much more common among an important segment of the public—the most politically active, knowledgeable, and engaged. This group is disproportionately visible online and in public life." As a result, the idea that echo chambers are growing more common "has ironically been amplified and distorted in a kind of echo chamber effect." (Morris Fiorina made a similar argument in a recent Reason interview.)

Some of us have been beating this drum for a while. Back in 2011, for example, I panned Pariser's book for missing the ways the internet has reduced rather than intensified the filter-bubble effect. I'll wrap up with an excerpt from that:

Yes, our media consumption is increasingly personalized. But personalized does not mean isolated. Pariser imagines the Internet becoming a stagnant "city of ghettoes" where "connections and overlap between communities" disappear. But how many people belong to just one online community? A personalized Internet is an Internet geared toward your particular combination of interests, and therefore to your particular combination of human networks. If you're a Methodist Democrat in South Baltimore who watches birds, follows basketball, and loves Elvis, you might be in touch online with people who share your faith but not your politics, and vice versa; your neighborhood but not your hobby, and vice versa; your taste in sports but not in music, and vice versa. That isn't a city of ghettoes. It's a city of crossroads.

And while there may be many good reasons to hate Facebook, an insufficient diversity of views isn't one of them. One of the chief effects of using the site, after all, is to discover your friends' horrifying opinions.

Photo Credit: Terapeak

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  • BestUsedCarSales||

    "more and more enclosed in our own little bubbles. Democracy requires a reliance on shared facts; instead we're being offered parallel but separate universes."

    I think the dream is to destroy government to the point that people can live in their parallel universes. We don't have shared lives, and the idea that we should all forced to live a certain way in order to conform to Democracy seems silly to me. Democracy is a tool, not an end-goal.

  • Don't look at me.||

    I reject your reality, and substitute my own.

  • DajjaI||

    Yes but I've discovered that people on fb hate when you (I?) speak out on controversial issues. They say, "I only use fb for sharing cat pics with friends", or "Show more respect, love and tolerance" or "Maybe the problem is with you". Also I've noticed that when there is a disagreement, people are way to quick to smooth it over instead of acknowledging it. As a result the discourse is very bland. It's actually a subtle form of bullying and it works because people are scared of sticking their necks out and taking a position on an issue that the political winds will quickly change and their words will be recorded for all eternity. For example, a fb friend recently said a few nice but bland words about immigrants I think hoping to not be sent to the gulag when the dems return to power and deputize all the illegals to round us up.

  • R. K. Phillips||

    Normally, on FB, the "discourse" is a discordant ad hominem hash.

  • John||

    This whole thing always struck me as a bunch of people angry that other people held views they didn't like and instead of seeing it as legitimate disagreement instead invented this as a way to rationalize declaring opposing views invalid. It is not that you are mistaken and I have a duty to explain why. It is that you think this way because you are in an echo chamber and don't know any better and thus I have no duty to explain why you are wrong.

    The whole thing is just false consciousness meets social media and the internet.

  • BestUsedCarSales||

    It's the underlying paternalism of many political systems. They don't have the decency to consider opposing views wrong, they just have to believe everyone is a poor ill-informed child. Otherwise they would have obviously came to the same conclusion.

    I much more respect a person willing to tell me I'm wrong, because it gives me the agency to be wrong.

  • John||

    Yes. It is also begging the question. Who says my echo chamber is wrong about everything or whatever we are talking about?

  • Zeb||

    TOP MEN.

  • Mickey Rat||

    Yes. The complaint about not operating from t he same set of facts is a euphemism from not operating from the same set of ideological assumptions.

  • Tony||

    Also facts. MSNBC uses them. FOX News does not. It's just the way it is.

  • loveconstitution1789||

    Facts are just not in the agenda for NBC, FOX, WaPo, etc.

  • MarkLastname||

    Uh no.

  • Incomprehensible Bitching||

    Price controls are awesome, regardless of what economists say, because... people.

    That's a fact! You can put that in your pipe and smoke it!

  • jdgalt1||

    Every person's brain generates his own filter bubble. It has to be that way; there is too much raw data for anyone to process without one.

    The study mentioned in your quoted paragraph gives me the giggles, since it makes the totally unwarranted assumption that NBC, CBS, and ABC are unbiased merely because they have large audiences.

    I believe we are all simply going to have to learn to live with the fact that there is no such thing as an unbiased source, and the best we can hope for is to know how to adjust our own filters so that they do their jobs well.

  • BestUsedCarSales||

    The study mentioned in your quoted paragraph gives me the giggles, since it makes the totally unwarranted assumption that NBC, CBS, and ABC are unbiased merely because they have large audiences.

    I can't tell what they meant by that one. It also seems like it might be saying that even the big dogs are only viewed by less than 10% of the public.

  • Jesse Walker||

    I can't tell what they meant by that one.

    I think it means the networks avoid the explicit partisan identification you get from people like Sean Hannity or Rachel Maddow. I don't think they would claim the network news is free of all bias. (If they do claim that, they'd be wrong, but it would also be beside the point.)

  • Zeb||

    It's very superficial. FOX and MSNBC are explicitly partisan. The networks at least pretend not to be most of the time and are perceived that way by a lot of people.

  • hello.||

    It's very superficial. FOX and MSNBC are explicitly partisan. The networks at least pretend not to be most of the time and are perceived that way by a lot of people.

    The chief anchor and political correspondent for ABC News is George Stephanopoulos. In case you were in a coma for the last 30 years, he has been a Democratic political advisor his entire career prior to being hired at ABC News and was the communications director for Bill Clinton. Pretending like the networks are not nakedly and explicitly partisan is retarded.

  • loveconstitution1789||

    Much of the bias of media is in the stories they choose to cover or not cover and why. Then you have the biased opinion mixed in there based on particular political views.

    The big media gets some amount of their ratings from tvs at airports and businesses left on for some reason. Its does not mean that people are actually watching it. Of course, they will claim every viewer they can.

    Hardly any news organization simply report events with minimal bias like a teletype newsflash anymore. They provide "entertainment" now and boy are nearly all media sources entertaining.

  • R. K. Phillips||

    The main purpose of a news organization is to make a profit. Never forget that! (Especially when you find that some of the top positions are held by people with decidedly conservative politics.)

  • Zeb||

    the best we can hope for is to know how to adjust our own filters so that they do their jobs well.

    Then there is the question of what the job of our filters really is. Is it so that we can be "right" in some objective sense? Or is it so that we can function in the world and find meaning in life? How much do those really overlap?

  • John||

    There is also a logical fallacy behind all of this sort of research in that it assumes that the author is not also in an intellectual bubble. If everyone is in a bubble of reinforcing falsehood, aren't the people saying this also in such a bubble and their assertions just as suspect? The whole thing is just a fancy way of saying "everyone but me is wrong".

  • Chipper Morning Baculum||

    The whole thing is just a fancy way of saying "everyone but me is wrong".

    So, they are just like all the Reason commenters, except me?

  • John||

    Bingo.

  • $park¥ leftist poser||

    An article about echo chambers with no mention of Hit & Run? Sad.

  • John||

    Yeah because no argument has ever broken out on here. Ever.

  • $park¥ leftist poser||

    Shut up, doofus.

  • John||

    Come for the articles and stay for the high caliber of discourse.

  • $park¥ leftist poser||

    You don't even know what you're talking about.

  • John||

    Well, I guess you showed me.

  • loveconstitution1789||

    Its poser's way of welcoming you back.

  • Zeb||

    No one ever ironically makes stupid comments as a joke around here either.

  • John||

    Never Zeb.

  • $park¥ leftist poser||

    This is serious business, Zeb. This is no time for jokes.

  • loveconstitution1789||

    Wrecked 'em? I hardly knew 'em.

  • BestUsedCarSales||

    Good to see someone not making jokes.

  • John||

    For the record Zeb, I got that it was a joke. I guess I didn't make a very good joke back.

  • Zeb||

    Yeah, I should have figured.

  • GILMORE™||

    as has been said here a million times

    - 90% of the voting public doesn't give a shit and goes by feels.

    this isn't any sort of insight or revelation. only about 25% of eligible voters even vote. less than half those actually read the media.

    The hyperpartisanship exists among the retard-pundit class more than anything. The only people shocked by this news is the retard-pundit class.

  • silver.||

    retard-pundit class

    There's my word of the day.

    I went to school with the daughter of a local politician. He'd been a popular independent on our board of supervisors for a decade. He ran as a Democrat in a state Senate campaign recently, and he accepted over a half-million dollars in advertising from Bloomberg's Everytown for Gun Safety Action Fund. In his own neighborhood polling place, the school where his daughters had all attended, he lost. It's pretty telling that he underestimated the importance of gun rights to his neighbors. It's almost like most people who own guns don't talk about it, and they don't often have wild western shootouts in the streets.

  • loveconstitution1789||

    Its why the majority of Americans are called the silent majority.

    We vote though.

  • $park¥ leftist poser||

    We vote though.

    Speak for yourself, spanky-pants.

  • loveconstitution1789||

    Some of you vote?

  • R. K. Phillips||

    What's this "voting" thing people are going on about? Is it similar to "boating"? Because I like boating! Or is it just another meaningless fad?

  • GILMORE™||

    ""he underestimated the importance of gun rights to his neighbors"'

    Because the retard pundit class doesn't actually talk to people outside their circle of peers, who all digest the same few sources and develop their own consensus which is utterly divorced from reality.

    And every now and then they run polls to confirm their biases.

  • loveconstitution1789||

    Then the pollsters get that confirmation bias because they don't count all the people who won't talk to them.

    If they did polls might look something more like this:
    Popularity- Hillary 20%, Trump 23%, undecided 1%, told to fuck off 46%.

  • EscherEnigma||

    It's almost like most people who own guns don't talk about it [...]
    Nah. Gun-owners are like Vegans and Vegetarians. They love to talk about it.

  • $park¥ leftist poser||

    If some kid comes to my house to pick up my daughter, I'll make sure I'm cleaning my guns when he shows up. That way he'll know I'm serious business and will kill him if he touches my daughter.

    /seen on H&R multiple times

  • BestUsedCarSales||

    Good to see their lack of confidence in their daughter's agency.

  • silver.||

    Dumb girls don't know what's good for 'em!

  • loveconstitution1789||

    To be fair, every girl gets raped in college so...... maybe they don't.

    BOOM!

  • R. K. Phillips||

    I own a bunch of them firearm thingies. So do my friends. We rarely talk about them, even to each other!

  • Chipper Morning Baculum||

    - 90% of the voting public doesn't give a shit and goes by feels.

    Every human decision ever was based on feelz.

    And also, every human decision ever was also based on some sort of logical reasoning. One of the most prevalent fallacies out there is the dichotomy between reason and emotions. You can't make a decision without feelings. People with brain damage that are unable to feel emotions are also unable to make decisions, because they can't bring themselves to care about the outcome. On the other hand, all emotions, or at least all complex emotions, are tied up in reasoning, because complex emotions are conceptual and processing of concepts requires logical categorization.

  • GILMORE™||

    (insert mind-blown gif)

  • Azathoth!!||

    Shit like this--


    - 90% of the voting public doesn't give a shit and goes by feels.

    this isn't any sort of insight or revelation. only about 25% of eligible voters even vote.

    on a site where writers and commenters regularly discourage voting(while complaining about representation) just seems disingenuous.

  • Zeb||

    It's still true, however you value giving a shit and voting.

  • Number 2||

    Funny. Thirty years ago, the people who today complain about "filter bubbles" were complaining about "media concentration," "news monopolies," and the "loss of alternative points of view."

    And how is today's supposedly lack of "shared facts" any different from the days in which most people obtain their news from newspapers, which were stratified by political slant, editorial policies, education level, target readership, and geographic region? Did the readers of the Daily Worker learn the same "shared facts" as the readers of the New York Herald?

  • Zeb||

    That's true. You used to hear a lot more complaining from the left about the mainstream and corporate media spreading misinformation and such. Even 20 years ago. I think you are right that there is really nothing new about the "bubble" effect. What has changed is that now everyone easily has access to all kind of different information sources, rather than just the handful of local papers, national media outlets, and specialized political publications that you probably had to pay for.

  • Number 2||

    In fact, you can make the argument that we have a greater access to opposing points of view today than ever before.

  • loveconstitution1789||

    Therein lies the problem for the lefties.

  • loveconstitution1789||

    Wanting to live in a bubble per se is not a problem.

    I think the bubble problem comes into play with people who want Democracy their way, don't want to hear other supported opinions, and don't really want a Democracy.

    If you are a lefty, don't want to realize that most people in the USA are not lefties, and then get all frustrated because logic and evidence contradicts your socialists ways- you are probably in a bubble of your own making.

  • Quo Usque Tandem||

    Reason.com is my preferred filtered media diet. How sad is that?

  • silver.||

    Well since most news and commentary makes me want to lobotomize myself, I understand this.

    I do occasionally talk to people. Sometimes.

    Real people.

    Guys, I'm not lying!

  • Tony||

    Say we have broadly two political teams in this country. Which team is likely to have more facts on its side? The one with all the ideas, or the one whose only idea is "Whatever they're fer, we're agin'! Also fetuses are babies."

  • Azathoth!!||

    The one that you're against will have all the ideas, Tony. All the facts, and all the intelligence.

  • Zeb||

    Whatever they're fer, we're agin

    At this point, the left is at least as guilty of that as the right. The fact that being for free speech is now considered a right wing thing in many places is one very glaring example.

  • MarkLastname||

    Are we supposed to believe the side you're on is the one with 'all the ideas?' Because you comment right here exemplifies both your inability to conjure an idea and your reactive opposition to the other side.

  • hello.||

    It's great when you make yourself the punchline of a joke you're too stupid to get.

  • I am the 0.000000013%||

    10 million sounds like a bubble to me. If my math is right, that's about 4% of the adult population of the USA.

    Those 4 academics may want to take a little bit closer look at what the students are holding in their hands all day.

  • Zeb||

    Eeew.

  • I am the 0.000000013%||

    lol

  • Azathoth!!||

    The point here isn't that the network newscasts are themselves free of ideology (they aren't!) or that viewers are getting their news from The Big Bang Theory. It's that people aren't as politically self-segregated as the narrative has it, and that the most popular media-consumption tribes aren't organized around news or political commentary at all.

    Well, maybe not.

    It's difficult to maintain a right-wing bubble.

    But it's simple to exist in a left-wing bubble. In fact, it's pretty easy to exist in an extreme left wing bubble where leftist heroes battle right wing fascists endlessly, where every action signals virtue, and where everyone is united against the evil, thuggish and incredibly tiny and stupid right.

    Studies like this are attempts to dismiss the idea of the bubble because of the above stated inconvenient truth. The corollary is too disheartening--that people on the right are better informed because they can't insulate themselves easily is just too much to bear.

    So the notion must be downplayed until a good scathing example of evil right wing stupidity can be brought forth to show haw stupid and evil they are--again.

  • Zeb||

    If you don't watch TV or read the big newspapers, it's pretty easy to find your bubble for whatever wing you want.

  • $park¥ leftist poser||

    It's difficult to maintain a right-wing bubble.

    It's nice to see you've decided to take on that challenge.

  • hello.||

    By hanging out at a faux-libertarian Koch Industries company newsletter that's only slightly to the left of Huffington Post?

  • Brian||

    When your worldview translates to one huge preoccupation with making everyone think the right set of thoughts, then these are the things you care about.

  • Intelligent Mr Toad||

  • ||

    The article is useful but does not reach to popping the so-called bubble... hereafter is the actual issue

    The problem = Our Problem, America's Problem

    is that any country can be taken over by 'stupid 'Kommunism' like 1070' Rhodesia; or, Russia in the 20's, Germany in the 30's' China in the 40's, India and Cuba in the 50's, Congo in the 60's, Vietnam in the 70's Afghanistan in the 80's, Bosnia in the 90's, Venezuela in the 2000's. These countries are cited because they are handy for YOU to check out.

    And because I am always saying 'the record of 'Stupid 'Kommunism' is perfect, and the countries I list are EACH tidy examples of the NEVER FAIL success of 'stupid 'Kommunism' in using social justice 'Krap to reduce the countries it takes over to perpetual poverty and squalor.

    And, because they and their poverty and squalor 'stupid 'Kommunist' social justice policies and practices are totally repudiated by every country that adopts and implements 'beneficial communism'.

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