Before his consent To buy Twitter made official, Elon Musk “wanted to personally reach out” to Twitter advertisers by tweeting an open letter to his 12 million followers.
Dear Twitter Advertisers pic.twitter.com/GMwHmInPAS
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) October 27, 2022
The letter is a call. In it, Musk looks like many who have grown weary of social media. It uses language that you may have even used. He warns that it is “important for the future to have a common digital public place.” Musk doesn’t mention the idea that said town square is owned by a single company, but he does mention that social media can “split itself into far-right and far-left echo chambers.” These groups “generate more hatred and divide our society”.
Maybe I’m excited to seriously engage with a guy who walked into Twitter HQ with a sink to make a in real life pun intended, but Musk now owns one of the most important platforms for global discourse, so I don’t really have a choice.
His idea of the “echo chamber” here is completely wrong.
And Musk’s misconception is shared by many, across the political spectrum. The evils of the social media echo chamber have been repeated so many times that they are assumed to be facts. Yet researchers have struggled to find evidence that social media produces experiences where we only see information about things we agree with.
As I wrote recently, it is often the opposite:
Political scientist Pablo Barberá found, in a 2015 working paper, that even users who mostly follow like-minded people end up seeing more and more heterogeneity. ideological accounts. Other articles and academic studies found that social media and the Internet often increase the range of viewpoints to which people are exposed.
It makes sense, intuitively. People of different political stripes are constantly yelling at each other on Twitter. Since I wrote the above, new research has come out that suggests even more that social media doesn’t fit the idea of echo chambers.
In his review of the literature on this subject, Petter Törnberg, researcher at the University of Amsterdam, observed that “social media research has always failed to “find them”.
The paper’s findings effectively flip the echo chamber: social media polarizes not by isolating us from opposing viewpoints, but by making us interact with opposing supporters. They throw us into a partisan war in which we are forced to take sides (@chris_bail) seven/
— Petter Tornberg (@pettertornberg) October 12, 2022
Divisions and polarization certainly still exist. But what Törnberg discovered that people were going mad and polarized online because of their offline divisions and already established political dispositions. What’s unique is that online, the glue of local community – the bonds that allow people who disagree with each other to find common ground – evaporates. “Social conflict is enduring as long as there are multiple lines of disagreement that don’t overlap,” writes Törnberg, “we can vote differently, but if we support the same football team or go to the same church, it remains room for interpersonal respect”.
It’s logic. And helps us understand why social media is distinctive. Törnberg concludes that those people who wouldn’t otherwise engage with each other are yelling at each other online, exacerbating polarization. “[D]digital media do[es] not to isolate ourselves from opposing ideas; on the contrary, they lead us to interact with individuals outside our local bubble, and they throw us into a political war, in which we are forced to take sides”, which is at the “heart of the rise of partisan triad”, writes -he. .
This is the exact opposite of the usual thesis: the idea of divisive filter bubbles, or echo chambers.
Twitter is more like putting an anarchist crust-punk from Seattle in the same room as a former Kappa Alpha from Auburn and watching them talk politics all day. Of course, they would probably tear their heads off. Now imagine watching a thousand versions of this all day. It would make you think the world is crazy. That’s your problem.
It’s worth stopping, however, and asking why the idea of the “echo chamber” is so appealing, both to Musk and to the opinion columnists who constantly bring it up. As I concluded the last time I wrote about the misconception, I think it’s escapism.
“Echo Chamber” is a meta-critique. It does not address the actual merits or flaws of an argument. Other people are simply deluded reactionaries duped by Facebook. But while private social media companies can influence us, they aren’t the only things that do. Our core ideologies and values are determined by everything from where we grew up, to who we love, to how politics actually impact our lives. Fixing Facebook wouldn’t solve the problem of many echo chambers — your family’s opinions, your friend’s bigoted talking points — even though it’s a good idea.
In a way, those who worry about echo chambers are overly optimistic. Many voters really want Trump, Brexit and other things that liberals abhor. A lot of people don’t really care about democracy. Better information might not be a panacea for this, although it would slow down a conspiracy theory like QAnon.
For Musk, and for others, talking about echo chambers means solving a false problem and allows them to avoid talking about real problems.
Personally, I think it’s also more complicated than what Törnberg presents. Many of these problems are, at least in part, born of precariousness. It’s not just a hunch. Joanna J Bryson, teacher at the Hertie School in Berlin replied to Törnberg with his own paper which found that polarization correlates with rising inequality and economic decline. With few ways to improve their lives, people start posting online, a small attempt at control.
I don’t know what Musk’s real motivations are for buying Twitter. I don’t even know if he even believes his “echo chamber” argument. I know that talking about the “echo chamber” and promising to banish it doesn’t solve anything.