Mon06182018

LAST_UPDATEMon, 18 Jun 2018 3pm

Beware! Sometimes What We Read Online Isn’t Reality But Just An 'Echo Chamber'

The 14th General Election in Malaysian has been record-breaking in so many ways but did you know that it also broke a new record for election hashtags usage?

With more than 7.3 million tweets recorded using the #GE14 hashtag, that unprecendented volume of traffic had set a new Twitter election record for Malaysia, Digital News Asia reported.

And if you look at the tweets using the hashtags, most of the tweets are kinder towards the Pakatan Harapan coalition, rather than the Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition.

Another statistic provided by Digital News Asia, revealed that the leader of the Pakatan Harapan coalition, Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad was mentioned more than then Barisan Nasional leader, Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak.

And if someone tries defending Barisan Nasional using the #GE14 hashtag, they will immediately be branded as Barisan Nasional’s cyber troopers, paid to promote the coalition, propaganda, or even just blind from the truth.

 

This example leads us into what we are discussing in this article, that most people on social media only respond to what they want to believe in regardless of the truth and are feeding their own biased view of the world, essentially living in 'echo chambers' of their own beliefs which is entirely of their own choice.

What Is An Echo Chamber Actually?

You see, when using social media, an individual will be more willing to follow or befriend people who share the same school of thoughts or the same beliefs that they do.

This creates a bubble where their ideology bounces around themselves, closing them off from any views or opinions that might challenge their beliefs.

Sure, reading about it like this might make the problem seem trivial, but I assure you. The echo chambers problem is a real one.

Let’s look at the recent elections as an example.

This signifies a huge echo chambers problem, as any beliefs that might run contrary towards the general public’s thoughts were rejected outright, without any real research.

According to social media and strategic communications expert, Shahrin Bahar who runs social media adverts as a freelancer says that this creates a total rejection of ideas and values, and it might create a prejudiced dissemination of knowledge in social media.

“As you can see, if you read carefully the tweets regarding the GE14, there are some people who tried promoting and explaining BN’s strengths. But these tweets are nowhere as popular as the tweets that promoted PH,” said Shahrin.

Shahrin says that this shows clearly that there is a clear rejection of one side’s ideology or thoughts, and this creates a clear gap in the information that is being spread online.

Another problem that these echo chamber creates is how it makes it easier for discrimination, and even cyberbullying to happen.

“For example, we all can see that the Malaysian social media is very heavy on the side of PH. So what happens when someone dares to promote BN, or announce their support for BN in social media?

“They were vilified, discriminated against, called names, and even bullied for expressing their thoughts, and daring to raise a point of view that was contrarian to the masses.

“And the echo chambers helped in such a way that these other people who shared the same beliefs with the first attacker, will come in and join the attack on the person who carried a different thought.

“Simply said, the echo chamber is an environment where it kills any alien thoughts or opinions, and tries to beat down the carrier of the opinion to conform to their thoughts,” said Shahrin.

And Shahrin also said that another huge problem that arises from the echo chamber phenomenon is the dissemination of fake news.

“Usually, when someone is stuck inside an echo chamber, they rarely get their news from any other sources, due to distrust. They feel like anyone outside their circle is untrustworthy.

“But this also helps the spread of fake news, as when someone from their circle spreads news, there is rarely any fact-checking, as they prefer to take the words of each other as gospel, even,” said Shahrin.

Echo Chambers And Political Discourse

Echo chambers is filled with like minded people, who won't challenge your conceptions or thoughtsEcho chambers is filled with like minded people, who won't challenge your conceptions or thoughts

The buzzwords, ‘echo chambers’ and ‘filter bubbles’ had started appearing in studies about social media in 2016  suggesting that a combination of fake news, fake posts, and fake tweets, consumed within our online echo chambers and filter bubbles may be intentionally feeding our brains a narrowly biased view of the world, Psychology Today reported.

Increasingly, the warped version of reality that we see online isn’t reality at all, the article goes on to give recent examples of such ‘echo chambers’ in shaping political discourse.

In order to truly understand what an echo chamber is, we must turn our attentions to a specific point in the past, namely almost two years ago on the 23rd of June 2016.

This day, although it might not carry much significance for Malaysians, it was a day that shocked the world, and left most British citizens reeling. Yes, 23rd of June was the day that Britain citizens voted that the United Kingdom should leave the European Union (EU), taking with it all the benefits and the contributions that it can offer to the EU.

Of course, if we were to discuss the cause and consequences of Brexit, it will warrant an entirely different article, which is why we will focus on the aftermath of Brexit only. The day after the referendum ended, and the results were starting to pour in, the British were shocked.

Millions of students and the younger generations were horrified, to the point of organizing revolts and protests against the referendum, because they never saw it coming.

Why? Because of the existence of echo chambers in social media. You see, the theory of an echo chamber states that an individual might be exposed to a singular school of thought of ideology which they agree with, and reinforces their belief.

Hence, from the younger generation’s perspective, the prospect that most Britons would have voted for the ‘Leave’ option was not considered at all, therefore they were shocked and surprised when it the vote didn’t turn out how they were expecting.

The same thing happened in the United States of America, just a few months later.

During the Presidential election of 2016, American citizens were shocked when Donald Trump started putting up a fight, and then were horrified when he started keeping up with Hillary Clinton, and by the end of the day, were devastated when it became official; Donald Trump is the 45th President of America.

Much like the Brexit referendum, the people were caught off guard by the results of the Presidential election, because they never thought that Donald Trump winning was remotely possible, due to the the information they got from their social media.

Essentially, what many supporters of UK remaining in the EU as well as those rooting for Hillary Clinton to become US President had lost touch with reality as they surrounded themselves only with opinions affirming their views on social media.

While this may sound harmless, the hidden dangers of being trapped in an echo chamber are real.

Why? To answer this question, we spoke to a social media analyst for a large insurance company, Nurul Aisyah.

Nurul Aisyah, whose job requires her to check social media closely and anticipate growing trends, says that the problem of echo chambers in social media usually starts due to a number of reasons.

Why Echo Chambers Are Dangerous

This comic depicts the effects of an echo chamber when you have multiple individuals confirming one singular thought or belief.This comic depicts the effects of an echo chamber when you have multiple individuals confirming one singular thought or belief.

“First, it is because the need for validation that is within almost every social media user. Social media users seek validation regarding their thoughts or their beliefs, so they almost exclusively follow or befriends people who share their thoughts, and only their thoughts.

“Secondly, it might also stem from the fact that most people are not willing to accept discourse on ideologies that might challenge their own. So in order to combat this, they surround themselves with a group of people whose thinking is in line with theirs,” said Nurul Aisyah.

But no matter how it is created, the effects are clear.

“This creates a bubble where their thoughts are constantly reinforced by like-minded people, and keeps differing ideology from entering someone’s thought sphere,” she added.

This brings us back to our question; what is the problem that comes along with an echo chamber?

Well according to Nurul Aisyah, the main problem with an echo chamber is that it creates a place where an individual can isolate themselves from ever receiving opinions that are contrary towards their beliefs.

“This in turn, creates a feedback loop where the individual only receives the same thoughts, the same information, the same opinions in a loop. When someone is as closed off from differing opinions as this, a backlash can be expected when something does not go the way they thought it would be,” she said.

This can be seen when the results of the referendum and the Presidential election came out, when the younger generation started organizing protests and revolts against the results, which were not to their liking.

In a more local context, the effect of an echo chamber can also be seen five years before after the results of the 13th General Election, when supporters of the Pakatan Rakyat felt wronged after Barisan Nasional won the government for one more term.

This caused them to organize street rallies and also protests as they felt like the Barisan Nasional coalition stole the elections from them.

Another reason why echo chambers are dangerous, said Nurul Aisyah is that it impairs your judgement of situations.

“In these modern times that we are living in right now, most of us gets our information from social media. When there is a bubble surrounding an individual, as in most cases with echo chambers, this exposes someone to biased information, and even fake news.

“Also, most people have a circle of people they trust to get information from and this creates distrust towards any other information sources. This aggravates the echo chamber problem,” concluded Nurul Aisyah.

Which brings us to the biggest problem regarding echo chambers; that it promotes discrimination, and even cyber bullying.

How To Break Out Of An Echo Chamber

Well, according to Hazween Syarina, a lecturer of communications from Universiti Industri Selangor, said that breaking out of an echo chamber sounds easy, but is harder than it seems.

“You just have to force yourself to be more objective. Allow yourselves to digest information, thoughts, and opinions from other sources than your normal ones, and try to accept other point of views.

“The reason why this is so hard, is that the young generation, the generation that uses social media the most is a generation that relies on their feelings more than their thoughts.

“If something feels right, then they are more willing to accept it as a fact, even when there is no evidence to support it,” said Hazween.

Hazween said that echo chambers are particularly more dangerous when it comes to political and racial discourse, as the disinformation spread and the unwillingness to accept another point of view cultivated by an echo chamber is very damaging.

“This is why in particular political discourse are getting harder and harder on the internet, there is too much disinformation spread to drown out the truth, and it is amplified by the echo chambers,” she concluded.

So in conclusion, echo chambers cultivates a culture of unacceptance, irrationality, and even discriminatory behavior in an individual, and is something that we should combat.

Let’s start and be more objective by befriending people that we don’t share political beliefs in, or someone that we don’t share opinions with.

Perhaps, in the dawn of a new Malaysia, a more objective look will do all of us much good in fostering true democracy.

-mD