Facebook researchers have published an article in Science, certainly one of the most prestigious peer-reviewed journals. It concludes (roughly) that Facebook’s filtering out of news from sources whose politics you disagree with does not cause as much polarization as some have thought.
Unfortunately, a set of researchers clustered around the Berkman Center think that the study’s methodology is deeply flawed, and that its conclusions badly misstate the actual findings. Here are three responses well worth reading:
Also see Eli Pariser‘s response.
Categories: echo chambers
Tagged with: echo chambers
Date: May 7th, 2015 dw
Talk about “civility” on the Internet always makes me a little nervous. For a bunch of reasons.
First, I generally try to be civil, but I’d hate to see a Net that is always and only civil. Some rowdiness and rudeness is absolutely required.
Second, civility as a word feels like it comes from a colonial mentality, as if there are the civil folks and then there are the savages. I’m not saying that’s what people mean when they use the term. It’s just what I sometimes hear.
Third, civility is so culturally relative that demanding that someone be civil can actually mean, “Please play by our rules or you shall be removed from the premises!” Which is I guess what gives rise to my second reason.
Fourth, civility seems to be more about the form of interaction, the rhetoric of the interchange. That’s fine. But given a preference, I’d be hectoring people about dignity, not civility. You can be civil without according someone full dignity. If you treat someone with dignity, the civility — and more — will follow. For example, you’ll actually listen. (Note that I fail at this frequently.)
Fifth, civility and dignity are not enough to make the Net the place it ought to be. I would love to see being welcoming taken as a core value for the Best Net, that is, for the Web We Want. Welcoming the stranger is one of the originary traditions of the West, from Abraham inviting strangers into his tent, to the underlying theme of The Odyssey. (Another of our originary traditions: killing or enslaving strangers.) In embracing the stranger, we accord them dignity, we recognize our differences as something positive, and we humble ourselves. So, given a choice, I’d rather hear about a welcoming Net than a merely civil one. (Here’s a shout-out to the new Pew Internet study that reports that we’re not welcoming unpopular views on social media.)
Point five-and-a-half is: Just as welcoming precedes civility, safety precedes welcoming. This is a half point not because safety is a half point but because the outstretched welcoming hand entails reassuring the stranger that she is safe. And more than safe. Safety is essential, but it is obviously nowhere near enough.
Let me be clear, though. When I talk about “the Net,” I’m being misleading. The entire Net is not going to be characterized by any one set of values. And we don’t need the entire Net to be welcoming, civil, and a place where all are treated with dignity. (Safety is a different matter.) But we do need more of the Net to be welcoming, civil, and dignifying. And we absolutely need the networks where power and standing develop to go far beyond civility.
I was steeling myself a couple of days ago to say something in a talk that believe but don’t want to: We shouldn’t feel guilty about relying on sources with whom we agree to contextualize breaking news. It’s ok. It’s even rational.
For example, if the Supreme Court hands down a ruling I don’t understand, or the FCC issues a policy that sounds like goobledygook to my ears, I turn to sites whose politics I basically agree with. On the one hand, I know that that’s wrong on echo chamber grounds: I’m getting reconfirmed in beliefs that I instead should be challenging. On the other hand, if I want to understand a new finding in evolutionary biology I’m not going to go to a creationist site, and if I want to understand the implications of a change in Obamacare, I’m not going to go to a Tea Party site. [Hint: I’m a liberal.] Oh, I might go afterwards to see what Those Folks are thinking, but to understand something, I’m going to go first to people with whom I basically agree.
Unfortunately, saying that in my talk meant I’d have to acknowledge that if I can to go to, say, DailyKos for primary contextualization, then it’s fine for right-wingers go to Fox News. Then I was going to have to explain how Fox and DailyKos are not truly equivalent, since Kos acknowledges facts that are unpleasant for their beliefs, and because Kos allows lots and lots of community participation. But that’s a distraction: If it’s ok for me to go to a lefty site to contextualize my news, it’s ok for you to go to your righty site. That feels wrong to me, and not only because I think right sites are wrong.
I finally realized that I’ m using the wrong sort of sites for my example. I do feel queasy about recommending that people get news interpreted for them by going to sites that operate in the broadcast mode. Fox News is like that. So are Slate and Salon, although to a lesser extent because they allow comments and because they present themselves as opinion sites, not news sites. Kos much less so because of the prominence of blogs and community. But I have no bad feelings whatsoever about taking my questions about the news to my social networks.
Because I’m old, much of social networking occurs on mailing lists. Some of the lists are based on topic, and contain people who broadly agree, but who disagree about most of the particulars; that’s what conversations are for. For example, a couple of the lists I’m on this morning are talking about what it would mean if Tom Wheeler [someone give that man a Wikipedia page!] were appointed as Chair of the FCC as seems increasingly likely. Tom comes out of the cable TV industry, which raises suspicions on my side of the swimming pool. So there has been an active set of discussions on my mailing lists among people who know much more than I do. The opinions range from he’s likely to be relatively centrist (although veering to the wrong side, where “wrong” is generally agreed upon by the list) to he’s never once stood up for users or for increasing competition and openness. Along the way, people have pointed out the occasional good point about him, although overall the tenor is negative and depressed.
Now, do I need to hear from the cable and telecoms industry about what a wonderful choice Tom would be? Sure, at some point. I even need to have my more fundamental views challenged. At some point. But not when I’m trying to find out about who this Tom Wheeler guy is. If we take understanding as a tool used for a purpose, it becomes a wildly inefficient tool — a hammer that’s all handle — if we have to go back to first principles in order to understand anything. Understanding is an efficient tool because it’s incremental: Given that I favor a wildly open Internet and given that I favor achieving this via vigorous competition, then what should I make of a Tom Wheeler FCC chairmanship? That’s my question this morning, not whether an wildly open Internet is a good thing and not whether the best way to achieve this is by increasing competition. Those are fine questions for another morning, but if I have to ask those questions every time I hear something about the FCC, then understanding has failed at its job.
So, I don’t feel bad about consulting my social network for help understanding the news.
And now, like the fine print in an offer that’s too good to be true, here are the caveats: My social networks may not be typical. Some types of news need more fundamental challenge than others. Reliance exclusively on social networks for news may put you into an impenetrable filter bubble. I acknowledge the risks, but given the situatedness of understanding, every act of interpretation is risky.
And yet there is something right in what I’m saying. I know this because going to “opposition” sites to understand the meaning of particular FCC appointments would require me to uncertainly translate out of their own unstated assumptions, and sites that try for objectivity don’t have the nuanced conversations enabled by shared, unstated assumptions. So, there is something right in what I’m saying, as well as risk and wrongness.
Tagged with: 2b2k
• echo chambers
Date: February 23rd, 2013 dw
Bora Zivkovic, the blog editor at Scientific American, has a great post about bad comment threads. This is a topic that has come up every day this week, which may just be a coincidence, or perhaps is a sign that the Zeitgeist is recognizing that when it talks to itself, it sounds like an idiot.
Bora cites a not-yet-published paper that presents evidence that a nasty, polarized comment thread can cause readers who arrive with no opinion about the paper’s topic to come to highly polarized opinions about it. This is in line with off-line research Cass Sunstein cites that suggests echo chambers increase polarization, except this new research indicates that it increases polarization even on first acquaintance. (Bora considers the echo chamber idea to be busted, citing a prior post that is closely aligned with the sort of arguments I’ve been making, although I am more worried about the effects of homophily — our tendency to hang out with people who agree with us — than he is.)
Much of Bora’s post is a thoughtful yet strongly voiced argument that it is the responsibility of the blog owner to facilitate good discussions by moderating comments. He writes:
So, if I write about a wonderful dinner I had last night, and somewhere in there mention that one of the ingredients was a GMO product, but hey, it was tasty, then a comment blasting GMOs is trolling.
Really? Then why did Bora go out of his way to mention that it was a GMO product? He seems to me to be trolling for a response. Now, I think Bora just picked a bad example in this case, but it does show that the concept of “off-topic” contains a boatload of norms and assumptions. And Bora should be fine with this, since his piece begins by encouraging bloggers to claim their conversation space as their own, rather than treating it as a public space governed by the First Amendment. It’s up to the blogger to do what’s necessary to enable the type of conversations that the blogger wants. All of which I agree with.
Nevertheless, Bora’s particular concept of being on-topic highlights a perpetual problem of conversation and knowledge. He makes a very strong case — nicely argued — for why he nukes climate-change denials from his comment thread. Read his post, but the boiled down version is: (a) These comments are without worth because they do not cite real evidence and most of them are astroturf anyway. (b) They create a polarized environment that has the bad effect of raising unjustified doubts in the minds of readers of the post (as per the research he mentions at the beginning of his post). (c) They prevent conversation from advancing thought because they stall the conversation at first principles. Sounds right to me. And I agree with his subsequent denial of the echo chamber effect as well:
The commenting threads are not a place to showcase the whole spectrum of opinions, no matter how outrageous some of them are, but to educate your readers, and to, in turn, get educated by your readers who always know something you don’t.
But this is why the echo chamber idea is so slippery. Conversation consists of the iteration of small differences upon a vast ground of agreement. A discussion of a scientific topic among readers of Scientific American has value insofar as they can assume that, say, evolution is an established theory, that assertions need to be backed by facts of a certain evidentiary sort (e.g., “God told me” doesn’t count), that some assertions are outside of the scope of discussion (“Evolution is good/evil”), etc. These are criteria of a successful conversation, but they are also the marks of an echo chamber. The good Scientific American conversation that Bora curates looks like an echo chamber to the climate change deniers and the creationists. If one looks only at the structure of the conversation, disregarding all the content and norms, the two conversations are indistinguishable.
But now I have to be really clear about what I’m not saying. I am not saying that there’s no difference between creationists and evolutionary biologists, or that they are equally true. I am not saying that both conversations follow the same rules of evidence. I am certainly not saying that their rules of evidence are equally likely to lead to scientific truths. I am not even saying that Bora needs to throw open the doors of his comments. I’m saying something much more modest than that: To each side, the other’s conversation looks like a bunch of people who are reinforcing one another in their wrong beliefs by repeating those beliefs as if they were obviously right. Even the conversation I deeply believe is furthering our understanding — the evolutionary biologists, if you haven’t guessed where I stand on this issue — has the structure of an echo chamber.
This seems to me to have two implications.
First, it should keep us alert to the issue that Bora’s post tries to resolve. He encourages us to exclude views challenging settled science because including ignorant trolls leads casual visitors to think that the issues discussed are still in play. But climate change denial and creationist sites also want to promote good conversations (by their lights), and thus Bora is apparently recommending that those sites also should exclude those who are challenging the settled beliefs that form the enabling ground of conversation — even though in this case it would mean removing comments from all those science-y folks who keep “trolling” them. It seems to me that this leads to a polarized culture in which the echo chamber problem gets worse. Now, I continue to believe that Bora is basically right in his recommendation. I just am not as happy about it as he seems to be. Perhaps Bora is in practice agreeing with Too Big to Know’s recommendation that we recognize that knowledge is fragmented and is not going to bring us all together.
Second, the fact that we cannot structurally distinguish a good conversation from a bad echo chamber I think indicates that we don’t have a good theory of conversation. The echo chamber fear grows in the space that a theory of conversation should inhabit.
I don’t have a theory of conversation in my hip pocket to give you. But I presume that such a theory would include the notion, evident in Bora’s post, that conversations have aims, and that when a conversation is open to the entire world (a radically new phenomenon…thank you WWW!) those aims should be explicitly stated. Likewise for the norms of the conversation. I’m also pretty sure that conversations are never only about they say they’re about because they are always embedded in complex social environments. And because conversations iterate on differences on a vast ground of similarity, conversations rarely are about changing people’s minds about those grounds. Also, I personally would be suspicious of any theory of conversation that began by viewing conversations as composed fundamentally of messages that are encoded by the sender and decoded by the recipient; that is, I’m not at all convinced that we can get a theory of conversation out of an information-based theory of communication.
But I dunno. I’m confused by this entire topic. Nothing that a good conversation wouldn’t cure.
What do you think are the best examples of Web-based echo chambers? These are the examples you’d point to if you wanted someone to see what an echo chamber is.
By “echo chamber” I mean a Web site where people with the same beliefs and values hang out, egg each other on, and do not for a moment seriously consider other points of view. If they link to other points of view, it’s to make fun of them. Participating in these sites should make you more close-minded and more impervious to fact-based counter-arguments.
So what are the best, clearest examples you know of?
Categories: too big to know
Tagged with: 2b2k
• echo chambers
Date: December 8th, 2012 dw
I’m engaged in a multi-day conversation at The Well, led by Jon Lebkowsky — join in! — about Too Big to Know, and found myself summing up the book as follows:
Traditional knowledge seemed like true content handed to us by competent experts. Networked knowledge seems like the work of humans who never quite get anything right.
Now, I’m of course not completely satisfied with that answer; if I were, I would have written a tweet instead of a book. But it leads to one of my many fears about this new knowledge ecosystem, which nevertheless holds such tremendous promise.
I think the Net only makes us smarter if we come to understand that truth is a complex of metadata — if I may put it in the least helpful way possible. In fact, you could substitute “authority” or “truth” in that sentence and have a less contentious way of putting it, and we can postpone the debate about whether there is really much of a difference between the two terms. Anyway, the simple point I’m failing to make is that the paper world tends toward establishing truths. Once established, they can be accepted without regard for the process by which they were established. Of course scholars and experts in the field will always be willing to challenge those processes, but our knowledge strategy has been to build upon a bedrock of established truths without having to re-establish each of them.
It is no accident that this mirrors the strengths and limitations of publishing truths on paper. Once published, paper-based works are literally independent of their sources. This independence enables truths to be distributed around the world, but at a cost. One of Plato’s problems with paper as opposed to dialogue was in fact that you can’t ask the paper any questions. Not only are we cut off from the processes that led to that truth, the paper seemingly inevitably takes on its own authority: If it made it through the editorial filters that the finitude of paper and bookshelves necessitate, then it must have some value.
It’s different on the Net. All it takes is a link to enable readers to see the processes — the drafts, the revisions, the arguments — that led to the page they’re reading. Authorial pride may get in the way of showing these processes, but increasingly the signal is flipping, so that not showing your work is taken as a sign of pretension, arrogance, or even fear, while showing the drafts and disagreements signals confidence and a commitment to truth…
…because truth on the Net needs to be more than the totality of statements that are true. For us to advance as a culture, we need to understand the human involvement in truth. We need to have as a guiding assumption that truth is something we argue about, that it is always seen from a particular historical and cultural position, that is never simply the statement that asserts something true.
And the Net is great at that. Links can lead us back to the processes that led to the assertions on the page, and links can lead us out into a world that interprets and challenges the assertions. Our overall experience of the Web as chaotic informs us that there are lots of different ideas, and, no, they don’t all fit together harmoniously.
If we stick with our old habits on the Net, then not only do we fail to advance, we regress. There are more untruths to learn on the Net than there ever were in the paper world. If we don’t grow into the assumption that truth always has a meta context, we will believe more flat-footed lies.
Now, I’m optimistic about this. I think some of these lessons are learned simply by being on the Web: Ideas are hyperlinked. The world is in disagreement. But these lessons are not inevitable, or at least they can be suppressed by our old instincts and by our intellectual laziness (or call it efficiency if you prefer): Just as when we see a bright shiny object, our eyes twitch toward it, when we see a bright rectangle of text and graphics, our brains twitch toward giving it credence. That was a much more useful (lazy/efficient) reflex in the paper days when publication entailed filtering. It is a habit that leads us away from truth in the Net age.
And the evidence is not entirely encouraging. One study — which I cannot find, thus causing my entire argument here to do the Happy Irony Dance— found that only a tiny percentage of students who consult Wikipedia ever look at the “talk” or “discussion” pages where Wikipedia’s assertions are argued. That’s in part a failure of education and a failure by Wikipedia to explain itself. It is in part a reflection of the fact that people generally come to an encyclopedia to get answers, not to read back-and-forth arguments. But apparently (see the Irony Dance above) only a small percentage of Wikipedia users even know what the Talk pages are.
One of the definitions of “fundamentalism” of any kind is that it is the assumption that texts speak for themselves, without interpretation or inquiry. Fundamentalism becomes much more dangerous when the seeker of belief has a near infinity of scriptures from which to choose. I believe the Net is making us far smarter, but on cloudy days I wonder.
Categories: too big to know
Tagged with: 2b2k
• echo chambers
Date: September 15th, 2012 dw
Here is the text of a short talk I gave at PDF yesterday. I did not use slides, and I actually read from pieces of paper because I wanted to make sure that I stayed on time (it took about 8 minutes, I think) and did not stray too far from what I wanted to say. So, yes, I read a freaking paper at PDF. And yes, I am ashamed. On the other hand, I’m humbled and amazed to have been in the line-up of speakers that morning.
Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan is reputed to have said, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, not to his own facts.” We like this saying in large part because it brings us the comfort of believing that facts provide a way of bringing us together. But perhaps the single incontestable conclusion to be drawn after any even quick involvement with the Internet is that we don’t agree about anything. Everything is contested on the Net, even things that really should not be. Perhaps it’s time to acknowledge that the facts are not going to bring us together. The old Enlightenment ideal of two people with deeply different ideas sitting together over a cup of coffee and working themselves down to their fundamental differences, until the issue is resolved, the Internet has shown that that ideal just isn’t going to happen. We don’t agree, and now we can’t deny it.
I am not saying that we should give up on facts, or on fact-based argument. To the contrary. It remains our obligation to try to base our policies on facts, because facts are the parts of reality against which we bark our shins. Reality counts.
But I do want to argue against one version of despair that comes from looking at the seeming powerlessness of facts on the Internet: The echo chamber argument.
Cass Sunstein’s idea of echo chambers, and Eli Pariser’s excellent Filter Bubble variation, are well known to you. It’s the idea that when people are given lots of choices of voices to listen to, they — we — tend to listen to people with whom we already agree, and that this results in a confirming of what we believe, and can move us to move extreme versions of it, resulting in even greater polarization. If the Net is having this effect, the Net is not the great hope for a more open society, but a tragedy. Echo chambers are a real problem. We need to be vigilant, and educate ourselves and our children how to avoid their pernicious effects.
Please keep that in mind as I head toward what is actually my point today: Echo chambers are dangerous, but they are also a condition of thought and understanding.
So, I want to look at an example of an echo chamber. But not the usual ones. Instead, Reddit.com. Reddit has all the earmarks of an echo chamber. The Reddit community, although it is far from uniform, nevertheless generally shares some values. It is pro science, atheist, pro legalization of marijuana, pro cute cat, generally progressive. It has shared heroes like Neil DeGrasse Tyson. It has a set of in-jokes — memes that often you have to understand a hidden context to get; you have to know that a photo of a particular woman flags the text as an example of a “first world problem.” Then it’s hilarious. Reddit has its own vocabulary: FTFY is fixed that for you, and AMA is ask me anything. And it has its own norms and ethos. Reddit is an echo chamber.
Yet, it’s also one of the best examples of how a community can successfully engage outside of its own bubble. IAMA at Reddit stands for I am a …someone putting her or himself forward as interesting, willing to answer questions. I am a Mariachi. I am Louis CK. I am Daryl Issa. I am a janitor at WalMart. I am a Rick Santorum supporter. I am a Muslim religious student — remember Reddit is strongly atheistic and even anti-religion.AMA. Ask me anything. At its best, which is frequent, what follows is a group interview in which answers are treated with respect so long as they are frank and honest. The community feels empowered to ask the questions that people really want answered, without a foolish regard for political correctness. (Of course not all political correctness is foolish.) IAMA’s are a new form of journalism, and can result in the best interviews I’ve read – the recent IAMA with Paul Krugman for example. More important at the moment, they are a way in which an echo chamber throws a window open.
The key point is that it’s because Reddit is an echo chamber that it can engage in something close to the Enlightenment ideal of open, honest, frank discussion among people with deep deep differences. This is totally not accidental, and points to the baby that we should be careful not to throw out with the echo chamber bathwater. The Reddit community can engage in IAMAs so frankly and well because it has a strong sense of who it is as a community. Communities are echo chambers – a set of people that share basic values and beliefs that are assumed and reinforced. This is not an accident or something we can avoid. It is baked into the very nature of the conversations that create community: To have a conversation of any sort, you have to have 99% agreement. (I made that number up.) You have to be speaking the same language, have the same basic norms of conversation — who gets to speak for how long, how interruptive you can be, and so forth — and you have to be interested in the same topic. Then you can find some small differences to talk about — you both like Johnny Depp but differ about if he’s sold out, or you both want the poor to have access to health care but differ over how — and then you iterate on that 1% of difference. This need for a vast similarity is not a failing of conversation, but is its condition. And that’s because human understanding itself works this way. We understand the new by assimilating it to our existing context- our densely interrelated web of concepts, ideas and feeelings. That’s why when some piece of news comes along, it makes sense to go to a site where people with whom you basically agree — your echo chamber — is discussing it. What did the Wisconsin recall results mean for Pres. Obama’s reelection? I’m going to go first to, say, DailyKos, because they’re going to help me understand it within my personal political context. I might then visit a Republican site to help me see how they’re taking it, but that’s at least in part a type of anthropological research. Communities are echo chambers. Conversation is an echo chamber. Understanding is an echo chamber. The political solidarity that leads to action requires an echo chamber.
And as Reddit shows, our way out of an echo chamber is through an echo chamber.
The problem is that Reddit is an all too rare example of an echo chamber that willingly throws open its windows. It takes rare delight in doing so. What distinguishes Reddit? It is an echo chamber with a commitment to the value of curiosity, and strong norms of empathy, acceptance and love. It can engage with other points of view without giving up its own values or its snarky silliness. And from this, as the SOPA protest showed, can come political action.
We cannot escape all our echo chambers. Our challenge is to bring to each of the echo chambers we inhabit the values that will turn them into arenas of engaged understanding rather than into dark chambers of willful stupidity.
From a New Yorker article (April 9, 2012) by Adam Gopnick on Camus:
Good editorial writing has less to do with winning an argument, since the other side is mostely not listening, than with telling the guys on your side how they ought to sound when they’re arguing…Not “Say this!” but “Sound this way!” is what the great editorialists teach.
Categories: too big to know
Tagged with: 2b2k
• echo chambers
Date: April 11th, 2012 dw
Ethan Zuckerman asks a simple question — is there a correlation between how many outside news sources the people in a country consult and whether those people’s language is spoken mainly in their own country? — and leads us through the quantifiable maze looking for an answer.
Ethan defines “linguistic isolation” as “how well does the dominant language of your nation affect your ability to engage with information produced in other countries?” Using data from Worldmapper, and after some careful discussion of the limitations of that data (e.g., he only considers first languages, which obviously skews results for countries where many residents speak a second language, especially since one would expect (note: I am data-free!) that in many linguistically isolated countries there is a premium on learning a second, more globally popular language), he concludes:
…looking at data from 31 countries, there’s some correlation (R2=0.38) between linguistic isolation and low international readership. But there are exceptions – Argentina and Chile both have very low isolation scores, but they don’t read a lot of Mexican or Spanish news… or even each other’s news. South Africans show high linguistic isolation (languages like Zulu and Afrikaans aren’t widely spoken outside South Africa), but read a lot of international media in English, though it’s a minority language. I’m looking forward to examining a larger set of media consumption data and trying this linguistic isolation score alongside other factors, like total population (small nations might read larger nations’ news) and migrant population (the desire to read news from home.)
I’m not a quant (obviously), but I like watching people who are when they are asking fascinating questions, and when they teach as clearly as Ethan does.
After a couple of years, I’ve actually published another issue of my old ‘zine. Why so long between issues? Basically, blogging ate my zine.
Here’s the table of contents. The main article is, unsurprisingly, the first one:
Culture is an echo chamber: We all hate echo chambers in which a bunch of yahoos convince one another that they’re right. But, our fear of echo chambers can blind us to their important social role. Just take a look at Reddit.com…
In love with linked data: The Semantic Web requires a lot of engineering. So along comes this scrappy contender that says we ought to just make our data public and see what happens. Brilliant!
Too Big to Know: I worked on a book for a couple of years, and now it’s out. Yay?
Report from the DPLA platform: Surprisingly, I’m interim head of the project building the software platform for the Digital Public Library of America. Here’s what’s going on.
Contest: #Stories If history were written in hashtags.
Tagged with: dpla
• echo chambers
Date: February 21st, 2012 dw
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