How to Know if You’re Living in an Online Echo Chamber, According to a Study
If you find yourself in a space in the interwebs speaking with uncanny familiarity to complete strangers, you may be in an echo chamber, where your own perspective is radioed back to you ad infinitum. At least that’s what a new study that looked at digital echo chambers said — and the findings could help combat the spread of misinformation that’s plaguing societies across the world.
Published on Monday in the journal Discourse & Society, the study was conducted by a team of researchers at the University of California, Santa Cruz. They looked at the hallmarks of an echo chamber, identifying the very red flags that can help people spot if they are in a similar setting.
“Examples include things like urban legends, disinformation, fake news, and any type of information that is overblown in various ways,” said Jean E. Fox Tree, who was involved in the study. “It’s important to understand why this type of information gains so much traction, and one theory is there’s a shared style of communication that’s part of that.”
As Fox Tree noted, part of what makes an echo chamber is the communication styles — particularly, the presence of hyperpartisan communication. It refers to rigid political rhetoric that isn’t necessarily rooted in facts and can be heavily driven by emotion. Think the viral spread of anti-vaxx sentiments across groups and communities online.
“Identifying the characteristics of hyperpartisan communication that make it so amenable to sharing is crucial to combating the spread of misinformation,” the paper stated. Spontaneous communication — a style of interaction that is familiar, personal, conversational, and can be tinged with strong emotions — is a linguistic marker of a hyperpartisan echo chamber. “People use spontaneous communication in order to create a sense of personal closeness, and that can lead to increased uptake in information,” said Allison Nguyen, lead author of the study.
Swear words, exclamation points, “I” and “you” pronouns for familiarity — all were indicators of spontaneous communication that facilitate hyperpartisanship. This was in addition to “discourse markers” like “you know,” and “well,” as well as prepositions indicating space and time.
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“This suggests that speakers in hyperpartisan online communities exploit linguistic resources, even those without overtly political or persuasive content, to engage readers through appeal to closeness and familiarity,” the research concluded. In other words, the biggest red flag comes in the form of language and tonality used. They create an illusion of ideological proximity that makes it easier to fall into a digital bubble that only grows and grows.
Previous research has shown how social media and its algorithmic mysteries drive the formation of echo chambers. Another study has shown how the effects of partisanship, like polarization, are inflated, or sometimes, reduced within echo chambers depending on the type. There may be two kinds of echo chambers: centralized and egalitarian. Centralized echo chambers have a powerful “influencer” at the center, and any bias from them can reverberate, amplified, through the group. Egalitarian echo chambers, on the other hand, are characterized by non-hierarchical spaces, and can leave people coming away with less partisan biases than before.
Identifying when you’re in an echo chamber can also help curb in-group behavior and rising hostility against the “other” in a partisan setting. Evidence shows that affective polarization — or a measure of how much people dislike the “other” side — is on the rise across many countries. This hostility can be difficult to reverse, given how political polarization has increasingly become associated with people’s identities. It becomes important, then, to actively recognize the signs of an echo chamber and make informed decisions about how to engage in any kind of discourse.