About That Echo Chamber…

As this blog frequently notes, one of the thorniest problems bedeviling our unravelling democracy is the distortion of reality–intentional and unintentional– provided via the Internet. That distortion is immensely aided by our tendency to live in echo chambers populated by friends who think like we do.

Most of us trust links from friends – a vulnerability exploited by phishing sites and other forms of online manipulation. An increasing number of us “unfriend” contacts who post uncongenial opinions or facts inconsistent with our political prejudices.

This is a real problem.

On the one hand, citizens who occupy different realities cannot have productive conversations or negotiate practical solutions to common problems; on the other hand, censorship of electronic media, in an effort to separate wheat from chaff, is neither wise nor possible.

Can technology save us?

Most of us, whatever our political orientation, recognize the problem. As an IU Professor of Computer Science and Informatics puts it,

If you get your news from social media, as most Americans do, you are exposed to a daily dose of hoaxes, rumors, conspiracy theories and misleading news. When it’s all mixed in with reliable information from honest sources, the truth can be very hard to discern.

In fact, my research team’s analysis of data from Columbia University’s Emergent rumor tracker suggests that this misinformation is just as likely to go viral as reliable information.

As he notes, the Internet has spawned an entire industry of fake news and digital misinformation.

Clickbait sites manufacture hoaxes to make money from ads, while so-called hyperpartisan sites publish and spread rumors and conspiracy theories to influence public opinion….

This industry is bolstered by how easy it is to create social bots, fake accounts controlled by software that look like real people and therefore can have real influence. Research in my lab uncovered many examples of fake grassroots campaigns, also called political astroturfing.

In response, we developed the BotOrNot tool to detect social bots. It’s not perfect, but accurate enough to uncover persuasion campaigns in the Brexit and antivax movements. Using BotOrNot, our colleagues found that a large portion of online chatter about the 2016 elections was generated by bots.

The real question–as the author readily concedes–is how to combat technology that spreads propaganda, or “fake news.” As he says, the first step is to analyze how these sites are operating.  Then we can hope that smart people adept in use of these technologies can devise tools to combat the spread of false and misleading information.

Long-term, however, “fixing” the problem of fake news will require fixing the humans who have a need to believe whatever it is that such “news” is peddling. That fix will necessarily begin with better civic education and news literacy, but it can’t end there.

Ultimately, we have a problem of political psychology…It would seem that we humans have invented tools that have outstripped our ability to properly use them.


  1. “Unfriending” someone whose views are uncongenial is one thing, but this past week someone who apparently does not like what I post “reported” me to Facebook, so I have been banned for the last four days. That is censorship, which is bad in anyone’s hands, but even worse when Facebook seems to give anyone the power to censor, just on a whim.

  2. Pat; earlier this week one of my actual “friends” on Facebook “liked” a post listed as coming from me. I did not recognize it so clicked on it; it was supporting a doctor somewhere in Brazil. Of course, I did NOT post that and found no way to hide or delete it. All I can do is hope it is harmless and not an opening to a questionable web site. Along with the fake news and ugly rants, we are in danger from phishing and hacking by those who seem to have nothing better to do with their time. Do they have the knowledge and facility to enter our Internet access to terrorist and extremist sites as being interested – if not listing us as members?

    With all of the advantages; personal, medical, business, political and social, via the Internet, are many hidden dangers and access to our personal business and through us, on to our family and friends and our financial sites. These tools have not only “outstripped our ability to properly use them” but have opened our homes and our lives to dangerous invasions on many levels.

  3. I suggest there is a strong link between the willingness to accept fake news and the enormous gap between economic classes. Give me a large and viable middle class and I predict an enlarged interest in actual news. Why? Because there is less pressure to maintain on the high side and debunk on the low side an unnatural (one could say fake) economic reality. And there would be a greater more widespread interest in maintaining and repairing a system that has proven trustworthy.

  4. BSH

    Thanks for this site. It is one I will be using to help me screen the garbage from the truth.


    I had similar problems until I closed the door and locked it by getting off Facebook.

  5. Happy Father’s Day (June 18) to all the dads and granddads!

    I’ve never added Facebook to the complications in my life, and I don’t plan to start it now. DT gives Twitter a bad name, so I’m not interested in that either. Time to free up, folks. Your addiction to social media is a problem.

  6. JoAnn: My wife’s FaceBook account has been “hacked” several times, and many of her FB friends’ accounts have been too. The way you can usually tell that your FB account has been hacked is if people, who are already your FB friends, start getting new “friend requests” purportedly from you. Doesn’t sound exactly like what you experienced, but it would be wise for you to immediately change your FB password, and then report it to FB.

  7. Thanks, David; that is exactly what happened, plus a few questionable posts I did not post or “share”.

  8. First I would like to commend Sheila and the forces behind https://mediabiasfactcheck.com/ for adding to our toolboxes a critically important tool…….maybe.

    For those searching for the kind of journalism that we remember as critical to democracy this tool is powerful. An objective view to base credibility on. My preference is to view the Internet as half wrong and half right and its critical on every visit there to sort the credible from the in-credible if you’re looking for right. This tool will help.

    The limitation of its value is the degree to which another belief of mine is true, and that is how many people care about right? My observation is a shockingly low opinion of the permanent brain damage of the last 30 years in reducing that percentage. People prefer brand over enlightenment.

    A forum in which I have a great deal of experience, too much says my wife, is climate change. Two of the categories on https://mediabiasfactcheck.com/ are “Science” and “Conspiracy/pseudoscience”. Of course most of us involved daily in climate change could have assembled both lists ourselves with high accuracy if challenged completeness.

    I will start publicizing the tool but you know what? Not much if anything will change. The people who subscribe to “Conspiracy/pseudoscience” know it’s not right and don’t care. Just like those who voted for Trump knew and know of his incompetence and don’t care.

    Tribalism (brand loyalty) has consumed us.

    Is this the end of democracy as we have always feared might come someday?

  9. Tribalism will not destroy America. It was present before America began. What will destroy America is two-fold: Big Money and citizens who don’t care or just can’t be bothered to be citizens. I admit to preferring communication with those of my tribe (anyone who is a bit left of center) politically, but I am not joined at the hip with them issue by issue. Big Money (and their toadies such as McConnell and Ryan) are enemies of democracy, as I pointed out in a blog just this morning and which I will publish shortly. When democratic idealism (the foundation within which free market capitalism thrives) is constantly ignored in favor of short term profits and favorable reports from quarterly stock analysts, the stage is set to pull the rug on our democracy with brutal lobbying and such travesties as Citizens United. The fundamental problem undergirding these and other such travesties is human greed and a lust for power, both of which have been around since Adam and Eve and to which all of us are privy at this point in time. Look around at the pretense of those who purport to act for the common good, from Harding through McConnell through Trump through the CEOs of the big Wall Street banks and tell me how much “good” any one of them has lavished on American democracy. I’m waiting.

  10. BSH: thanks for that link. I too have bookmarked it for reference in the future.

    Happy Father’s Day guys.

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