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Online Echo Chambers: Who and How?

While designed to offer convenient and personalized user experiences, numerous online information platforms have become echo chambers with grave consequences in public discourse, especially for students who are interested in politics and studying remotely. To dismantle echo chambers and promote informed citizenship, students must become aware of the types of individuals most vulnerable to echo chambers and processes of the human memory system.

There are numerous studies that link emotional dispositions to information-seeking habits as well as varying reactions. One study showed that emotions, namely anger and fear, influence information consumption: angry people searched for information that confirms their view more often; contrastingly, anxious individuals tended to research information that opposes their prior views. Another study found that users who are driven by “self-promotion” and those “deficient [in] self-regulation” share more “unverified information”, suggesting that echo chambers may mostly be created by a small number of political extremists and conspiracy theorists. Separate research concluded that political disinformation was often met with “anger and incivility” and that response to conservative and liberal disinformation was similarly less analytic compared to “true news”. This attentional-conservation tendency may explain why users, “regardless of educational level,” gravitate towards a “compact explanation that clearly [identifies] an object of blame”. By recognizing these differences and commonalities, students can then assess individual circumstances that impact their online information consumption and use the awareness to develop a more balanced information diet.

Likewise, a deeper understanding of the psychological and neurological processes of human memory serves as the foundation for reversing the adverse effects of online echo chambers. Bias, a process in which current knowledge and beliefs distort old memories, is a flaw in the memory system that warps not only memories but, as a result, one’s notion of self. As Daniel L. Schacter explains, “Our sense of self [is] based on memories of past experiences”. In the realm of online information systems, bias is present in the form of confirmation bias — that is, users’ misinformed concepts of self can lead to undesirable, at times devastating, real-life consequences. Another study concluded that “defensive bias” — now known as confirmation bias — is an “adaptive function for maintaining self-worth” but presents “maladaptive consequences for promoting and chance and reducing social conflict”. Furthermore, neurological processes of the human memory system bolster this notion of bias. Incoming information is actively processed for meaning based on one’s past experiences and on the context in which the information is interpreted within the Working Memory (WM). The Executive Control System (ECS) determines what information enters the WM and employs appropriate strategies to process meaning (Bruning, 2004, p. 29). Thus, a user entrenched in an online environment where ideas are extreme and homogenous may have an ECS that processes new information to align with his or her preexisting beliefs and rejects opposing information. Long-term potentiation would also be more efficient. Any new information consumed in the respective echo chamber can quickly hook onto the numerous bits of previous information gained from said environment.

Given this backdrop, consider the example of insurrectionists who used platforms such as Parler, Telegram, Discord, and Reddit to discuss and devise the recent storming of the Capitol. Despite knowing that their actions would carry severe consequences, Trump supporters raided the Capitol anyway, and some users encouraged the use of firearms against police resistance (Dewan, 2021). They were aided by the motivational power of confirmation bias which falsely justified the wisdom of their actions. Reasonably, insurrectionists’ ECS dismissed rational alternatives that contradicted their political affiliation. While some may argue this incident as an outlier, empirical evidence showed a positive correlation between “exposure to social media and to personalization algorithms...with violent extremism,” making it hard to dismiss the actuality, let alone severity, of this socio-technological dilemma (Sahani, n.d., p. 1).

Social media echo chambers are perhaps the most compelling example in which an understanding of human information processing is critical in navigating life as an informed citizen. The affective and cognitive responses detailed in the first paragraph also shows how human information processing has evolved to enhance survival and reproduction, not necessarily to ace the SAT. If students can participate in a collective migration away from their devices and invest their time in finding an “alternative source of identity,” possibly through increased athletic or artistic participation, it is predicted that students can overcome their cognitive dissonance and confirmation bias and “change their beliefs and even their behavior in a desirable fashion” (Sherman & Cohen, 2002, p. 119). Taken together, a heightened awareness of the human memory system and the adoption of behavioral tactics can help students better mitigate the impact of social media echo chambers.


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