Inside the Echo Chamber: Truth in the Age of Trump
Donald Trump, as both a candidate and now as president, has played so fast and loose with the facts that it has called into question how we as a culture think about important issues of truth. This article is one of a four-part series that explores the aspects of Truth in the Age of Trump. We examine what information overload does to our ability to manage information and sort fact from fiction, the role of disintermediation where the traditional gatekeepers are pushed aside and we can get our information (or misinformation) from favored sources, and the echo chamber where we only listen to voices that support our own ideas and biases. Finally, we explore where we go from here.
When Edgar Maddison Welch entered Comet Ping Pong restaurant in suburban Washington, D.C., a hot spot packed with its usual Sunday afternoon crowd, he wasn’t looking for pizza. He was looking to rescue child sex slaves. Mr. Welch, a bearded 28-year-old from Salisbury, NC who goes by his middle name Maddison, had driven 350 miles north as a man on a mission, a mission to save children who were being held captive by a nefarious syndicate of pedophiles run by none other than Hillary Clinton and John Podesta. This beloved family restaurant was nothing more than a front for the secret trafficking ring organized by the Democratic candidate for president. Inside there were tunnels and secret rooms and horrors unimaginable. Brandishing a loaded AR-15 and a revolver, he shot the locks off a storage room in his quest to save defenseless children being held by these evil monsters, only surrendering after it became apparent there were no hidden tunnels, no concealed rooms, no kids to be saved.
If this story sounds like a work of fiction to you, you’d be wrong. Maddison has since been charged with three felonies that could put him in prison for 30 years. He told the New York Times, “The intel on this wasn’t 100 percent.”
Indeed, it wasn’t.
What is the “Echo Chamber” Effect?
So what happened? Simply put, Welch was a product of the echo chamber in its extreme, modern-day form. The term “echo chamber” refers to closed environments where opinions and ideas and facts—both real and alternative—that support a particular ideology get reinforced by repetition and amplification. In practical terms, that means if I only listen to sources that say Hillary Clinton is an evil person running a child sex slave ring out of a pizzeria, I might be inclined to believe it if I already am biased against her and I hear this enough times, especially if more traditional news sources in cahoots with the Democrats aren’t sharing these same “facts.”
Even today, many dubious news sites perpetuate the “Pizzagate” story, claiming a big breakthrough in the case is imminent. This story—and stories like it—refuse to die because the tale has been so reinforced in the echo chamber that many passionately believe it could not possibly be false.
Both the right and the left have their own echo chambers. The phenomenon exists on both sides of the political spectrum. The further from the center a person tends to be on either side, the more vulnerable he or she is to the echo chamber.
Social Media and the “Echo Chamber” Effect
You might think social media is a melting pot of ideas and perspectives, but for most of us that could not be further from the truth. One study found most Facebook users have five politically like-minded friends for every friend on the other side of the political spectrum. When magnified, that means about 84% of the political commentary reinforces our own views.
Social media platforms like Facebook have developed increasingly more sophisticated algorithms designed to increase user engagement. They learn what we like, how we think, and what we disdain, then shape content around those preferences to keep us hooked and coming back for more. As a result, the ads and stories we see also tend to favor our leanings and our views of the world. The sum effect of all this is that we see most of our online friends expressing our same views and we get fed more advertising and articles that also support these opinions, so we become more convinced we are right and the other side is wrong. Something seems like truth because we hear it over and over again.
Recent research by Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences looked at 376 million Facebook users’ activity and found most users typically get their information from a very tiny number of news sources. In practical terms, this means most people are only exposed to information and viewpoints that reinforce their existing opinions. In addition to only looking at a handful of sources that bolster their conclusions or biases, the study also found the more active a particular community was, the more self-segregated and polarized from other communities it was. Upworthy CEO and author of The Filter Bubble: What the Internet is Hiding From You, Eli Pariser, told NPR, “The danger is that increasingly you end up not seeing what people who think differently see and, in fact, not even knowing it exists.”
Among social media users, the majority believe political conversations have become less respectful and less constructive online. Nearly two-thirds (64%) say that their online political interactions “leave them feeling as if they have less in common than they thought.” Is it any wonder people increasingly burrow into their own silos with like-minded individuals? It’s much less stressful to put up with all the angry chatter and strident opinions that clash with our own. The same study found 83% of social media users simply ignore any content with which they disagree.
Traditional Media and the “Echo Chamber” Effect
Social media is a major player in the rise of the echo chamber, but TV is still the most widely used platform for news with over half (57%) of Americans getting their local, national, and international information there. In the past election cycle, 40% of Trump voters said their main source of news was Fox News, dwarfing the next seven sources of news combined. Clinton voters tended to consider more sources of information. For 18% of them, CNN was their top source of news, while their next seven outlets accounted for 48% of their main sources (Pew Research Center). Conservative voters tend to see the media as biased against them and view Fox News as their only ally among the major television news outlets. Consequently, they hear a perspective that claims to be “fair and balanced,” but is highly partisan and reinforces a lopsided worldview, a worldview that says “secular progressives” (or just plain old liberals) are working to undermine the values of our country and are destroying the bedrock of our democracy.
Politics, Trump, and the “Echo Chamber” Effect
Nowhere is the echo chamber more evident or more fraught than among those in elected office. All politicians surround themselves with ideological bedfellows. We elect them on a platform of promises that require like-minded individuals to fulfill. Often this is a good thing, but sometimes this political echo chamber results in so much insular thinking the leader becomes woefully out of touch. We saw this happen with George W. Bush who squandered a good start to his tenure and a masterful early response to 9/11. He allowed his presidency to be co-opted by Cheney and the NeoCons who fed the commander-in-chief selective facts and analysis that resulted in a disastrous war in Iraq with ripple effects in the Middle East continuing to this day.
All presidents run this risk, but none can compare to the echo chamber Trump has already established, elevating his own relatives to positions of influence and power, something more characteristic of dictators than presidents. Equally concerning is his tendency to promote extreme ideologues or loyalists to key positions for which they are grossly unqualified (Steve Bannon appointed to the National Security Council, Ben Carson as HUD Secretary, etc.) or to departments they actively despise and do not support (Scott Pruitt as EPA Administrator, Rick Perry as Energy Secretary, and others). Trump doesn’t need sycophants and comrades to tell him he has been awesome at his job so far, but it helps. “I don’t think there’s ever been a president elected who in this short period of time has done what we’ve done,” he proclaimed. Even though the campaign is over, he only ventures out to rallies full of ardent supporters who swoon over him. Trump is building the biggest, most wonderful, most fantastic echo chamber ever.
Trust in the Age of Trump
Echo chambers form around matters of trust. We trust those similar to us. That’s human nature. In a world with lots of competing ideas, we tend to gravitate toward the voices that sound the most like our own. Of course, the opposite is also true. We distrust those who are dissimilar to us, so we shut them out and distrust their perspectives. We only listen to those we trust. With so much information and opinion bombarding us, truth becomes more a matter of consensus among like-minded people, and less an issue of objective, knowable facts.
In a culture where the notion of truth is in its last gasps, the echo chamber plays a key role in shaping objective facts into subjective realities. The health and vitality of our democracy rests on our ability to discern the real from the fake, to separate the facts from the crap. To do so, we’ve got to crack open the doors of our own echo chambers and listen for awhile to other voices who might sound different than our own.