In the 3 months leading up to this last election, 4 out of the 5 most circulated news stories on Facebook were hoax stories.
Think about that for a second.
These stories weren’t simply biased, twisted, or distorted. They were completely made up. They were 100% fake.
And they were passed around as actual news by hundreds of thousands of people.
How did we get here?
With 44% of US adults going to Facebook for news, how did we get to the point where we can’t be bothered to take an extra 15 seconds in order to verify the validity of the information we are not only consuming, but actively distributing?
You, me and pretty much everyone else are actively cultivating echo chambers in our lives.
As someone reading a site like Brazen Church – a site built to crash the echo chamber of American Evangelicals – you might think you’re exempt.
And you’d be wrong.
Today, we are going to look at why we create echo chambers for ourselves, and at the end, I want us all to take a unified, tangible step towards breaking out of those chambers and actively cultivating a diversity of voices in our lives.
You (Yes, You) Are Susceptible to Echo Chambers
What is an echo chamber?
In media an echo chamber is a metaphorical description of a situation in which information, ideas, or beliefs are amplified or reinforced by transmission and repetition inside an “enclosed” system, where different or competing views are censored, disallowed, or otherwise underrepresented.
What does this look like practically in 2016?
Let me give you an example:
You love watching Jon Stewart. You were a big supporter of Bernie Sanders. You broke away from the mainstream church and now you have built a sizable community of people online who share your disdain for organized religion.
You regularly post and comment in progressive Christian Facebook groups. You get lots of likes and positive comments whenever you share something progressive on your Facebook wall. You had a few crazy, right wing relatives and old friends who would leave ignorant comments on your posts, but you’ve either muted them or changed them to “Acquaintance” and started posting under the friends-only viewer setting.
You were shocked that Trump just won and you can’t believe half the country is racist. Only a handful of people you know were even considering voting for Trump and it was just because they were brainwashed Evangelicals.
If that sounds a bit like you, congratulations, you live in an echo chamber.
And that’s not me judging you.
In fact, most of the previous 3 paragraphs could be used to describe me. I have taken a few key steps to try and combat my own echo chamber, which I will share with you shortly, but I am just as guilty as anyone of allowing myself to get sucked into a world that only affirms my existing beliefs.
And while I am absolutely at fault for allowing this to take place, there are also some powerful psychological phenomena behind this tendency. Understanding them will equip me to fight against the creation of echo chambers in my life.
The Psychological Reason We Create Echo Chambers
There are several psychological phenomena that affect all of us:
- Confirmation bias
- Cognitive dissonance
- Belief perseverance
Confirmation bias is the tendency to search for, interpret, favor, and recall information in a way that confirms one’s preexisting beliefs.
It means that when we scan new information, we subconsciously (and sometimes consciously) look for information that affirms our existing beliefs while ignoring information that doesn’t fit with our beliefs.
This works in tandem with cognitive dissonance, the mental stress or discomfort experienced by an individual who holds two or more contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values at the same time; performs an action that is contradictory to their beliefs, ideas, or values; or is confronted by new information that conflicts with existing beliefs, ideas or values.
Not only is our subconscious constantly looking to affirm our existing beliefs and past decisions, but we will actually experience stress when everything isn’t lining up. When new information comes our way that oppose our beliefs, it stresses out our psyches.
This affects YOU, whether you like it or not.
And when that stressful new information comes along, contradicting what we already believe, we can either embrace it and adjust our beliefs, or, like many do these days, we can ignore it and persist in our preexisting beliefs.
Belief perseverance is the tendency to cling to one’s initial belief even after receiving new information that contradicts or dis-confirms the basis of the belief.
It’s what happens when that one guy shows up in the comments and says, “You guys link to Wikipedia? I can’t believe anything you say. Get some credible sources.” … and we show him how our links are actually pointing to works cited entries of credible sources that were used to populate the Wikipedia entry. We show him that the definition we are using is actually taken from The Encyclopedia of Social Psychology. And he responds, “Well, it’s Wikipedia. People can just write anything they want on there.”
While many of us take pride in our ability to embrace new information, we are still very susceptible to discounting any new information attached to ideas we’ve already evaluated.
This is part of what makes politics so divisive.
We’ve already listened to arguments for and against higher taxes, so we now think we fully understand the discussion and begin closing our ears to new information that doesn’t agree with our position.
We’ve already spent hours arguing about energy sources, and we’ve made up our mind.
We’ve already decided which type of immigration policy is “objectively” moral, and any arguments outside of that framework are clearly immoral.
In this way, we “free thinkers” are often just as susceptible to echo chambers as the uninformed simpletons we love to despise.
So how do we protect ourselves from falling into this trap?
The Solution: Cultivate “Echo Busters” In Your Life
The best solution I’ve found is to actively cultivate “Echo Busters” in my life.
These are people who fundamentally disagree with me on something big while still retaining my respect.
These are the people who will call me out when I embrace a faulty argument. They are the people whose annoyingly well-researched Facebook posts are always there to assault my news feed just when I was getting comfortable with my lot in life as the smartest person ever born. They are the people who will have a heated argument with me today and grab a beer with me tomorrow.
And most importantly, they are the people who, underneath the words, are living worthwhile lives I can’t help but respect.
You might read this and think, “Well I definitely don’t know anybody like that who doesn’t agree with me on most things.”
And I’m going to tell you right now, THAT’S 100% YOUR FAULT!
Those people exist. I guarantee it. If you don’t have them in your life, it’s because you aren’t trying hard enough to cultivate a diversity of voices in your life. And it means you are actively living in an echo chamber.
I believe the Evangelical Church at large is actively harming its own members and any who come in contact with its dysfunctional beliefs.
But I have insightful Evangelical friends who have done 100x more to benefit the vulnerable in their communities than I have. And if in my mind, my beliefs somehow allow me to disqualify the voices of people who are actually doing something positive on a weekly basis, I am hopelessly deceived.
I believe the Republican platform in it’s current state is wrong on a hundred different levels.
But I have Republican friends who are very knowledgeable, intelligent, and rational, and if I discount the very legitimate information they bring to the table simply because it makes me uncomfortable, I am hopelessly deceived.
I believe that we have a long way to go in terms of civil rights, but I also don’t buy into certain narratives and attitudes coming out of today’s civil rights movement.
However, I have friends in virtually every minority group who regularly push me out of my white comfort zone to re-examine my limited worldview and consider the existence of extremes I have never personally experienced. If I close my ear to their perspectives because I can’t fully relate or because it makes me uncomfortable, I am hopelessly deceived.
I need Echo Busters in my life.
You need Echo Busters in your life.
And if you already have them, you need to let them know how much you value their voices, insights, and perspectives.
That’s why today, we are going to do something together.
I want you to join me in getting on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram (or whatever social media site you spend your time on) and publicly tagging at least 3 people in your life who disagree with you on big issues while retaining your respect. Include the hashtag #EchoBusters and if you want, tag @BrazenChurch as well, so we can all do this together.
I think it would be really cool if, in spite of all the divisiveness of this last election cycle, and the uncertainty people are feeling towards the future, we all took a moment to appreciate some stand-up people who see the world differently from us and then acknowledge how much we have in common.
(There may be moments in the coming years where we will need to band together across the aisle and across viewpoints to stand up against some very serious affronts to human dignity. I hope that isn’t the case, but I think this is an important opportunity to acknowledge that for most of us, the “fights” we’ve fought over the last few months have been, up till now, purely theoretical. Our “opponents” have not been people actively dismantling freedoms or harming others. They simply disagreed with us on some big, complex issues.)
So who is with me today? Who is willing to take a tangible step towards breaking the echo chambers in their lives?
Robert Stearns says
Jacob McMillen says
Travi Calavera says
Outstanding article! I have one of those in my world, and im in his world. Just make sure your maintaining the relationship. This election really put the pressure on. Currently, we’re on a “truce” until January.
Jacob McMillen says
Haha that’s awesome. I find that a lot of my own such relationships require cooldown periods from time to time. I think as long as you can come out the other side without looking down on the other person, it’s healthy!
Brad Haist says
Thank you for this! How do we get this on “the news” networks? 😉
Jacob McMillen says
Well, I know certain networks enjoy condemning stuff they did the week before, so maybe we can get this syndicated 😉
Writing friction has forced me into the habit of consciously arguing both sides of a story. You simply can’t write multi-dimensional characters without it. However, the past six months I have found that working on new fiction has become increasingly difficult… probably because I’ve locked myself tightly into an echo chamber. How annoying. Thanks for the reminder.
Jacob McMillen says
Ooh SO TRUE! I’ve been diving into some fiction writing myself this last month, and it’s amazing how parallel the process of writing a successful fiction character is with understanding the human psyche.
And I’m right there with concerning the last 3 months. This article is just as much a reminder to myself as it is to anyone who reads it. Fortunately, once we are aware of the need, we are halfway toward resolving it!
Being a perennial “Echo Buster” myself, I don’t need to increase the hostility against myself by finding more people who disagree with me. I’m already a lone voice here, and I would love to have a “live” echo chamber for a change.
Jacob McMillen says
Haha I suppose it really depends on who you live with and where you live.
If I was living in Georgia, for example, I probably wouldn’t be struggling with an echo chamber. In Portland, on the other hand, it can be a real challenge.
Kay Hodge says
Jacob, you’ve hit it out of the park again. Absolutely love this.
Jacob McMillen says
I find that as I get to know more of the mind of Jesus, I can understand, be transformed (positively), and accept His truth with less of a desire to cling to my pet ideas.
Wonderful communication, Jacob. Thanks.
Jacob McMillen says
Thanks Nizam, and I would definitely agree that becoming more Christlike moves us in a positive direction on this echo chamber scale as well 🙂
Ian Parsons says
Quick comment, more later:
In the last days, people will surround themselves with teachers who tell them what they are itching to hear …
Jacob McMillen says
We definitely see that in action Ian, but to be honest, that verse is probably the most over-quoted verse on this topic. Everyone I ever see quoting it believes that they are right and that anyone who disagrees with them are the ones with “itching ears”. Meanwhile, they themselves are glued to a small handful of voices telling them exactly what they want to hear and validating their existing beliefs.
If anything, I think it’s just a good reminder to us to re-evaluate our own leaders and make sure we are making room for alternative voices in our lives.
Ian Parsons says
“These are the people who will call me out when I embrace a faulty argument”
Your argument is faulty because you jump to assumptions and judge my post before hearing what I have to say.
Jacob McMillen says
Lol what are you talking about?
I didn’t make any assumptions about your post. I just offered some general thoughts on that verse and how it is often used, while waiting for the rest of your post.
A while back I reached out to a couple of (left leaning) friends about getting together with me and a couple of (right leaning) friends dor a time of fellowship and heart to heart and mind to mind discussions. Being in the middle of the process over the last year, part of the time as a director of field ops for Trump, has prevented me from moving forward with the initial plan. Thanks for the reminder. You can c ount me in
Jacob McMillen says
Awesome Ken! Face-to-face is even more powerful than online interaction, and if everyone enters with an open mind, it allows for some really life-changing and community-building discussion.
Wonderful article ! I am currently struggling with reconnecting with a friend who prior to this election, I thought I knew. Though my ideas differ significantly from hers and my vote did as well, I honor hers or anyone’s reasons for their choice. My struggle comes as to how to address some really tough things that she posted and said that were unkind, pretty toxic and vitriolic. I love and care about her, but I may have to do that from afar, and definitely need that cooling down period you referred to. I want to honor me too. I am not sure she’s open to this kind of discussion but I will try. Your message is that important! Thank you!!
Jacob McMillen says
Hey Patty, thanks for commenting! Let me just clarify that while it’s important to have a people in your life who can bring compelling insights from the “other side”, not everyone who disagrees with you will fall under this category.
Some people are just toxic. I found it interesting that 4 out of the 5 Republicans I most respect were very critical of Trump, even though several of them still decided to vote for him for clearly defined, non-toxic reasons.
There’s definitely a difference between saying, “Look, we are a nation of immigrants, and we need positive immigration reform while also ensuring that our southern states are safe from some of the violent activity that can come through poorly enforced borders.”
… versus, “Mexico is sending us rapists and we need to shut these people out if we want to make our country great again.”
Whether I agree or not, one of those attitudes and perspectives is something I can respect, while the other is toxic.
All that to say, I think it’s important to strive to keep connection with the people who are genuinely our friends, despite their beliefs, BUT there is a reality that beliefs can be toxic and dysfunctional, and that will have a detrimental affect on those relationships.
Anson McDaniel says
Excellent words. A HUGE thumbs up. Thank you. Can you help me with something? What resources do you trust to fact check the articles that are posted? And how do you know those resources are non-biased/accurate? Thanks again – so very helpful!
Jacob McMillen says
Hey Anson, thanks for the kind words!
In terms of accuracy, it’s really a sliding scale, to be honest, and you have to factor that in.
For example, if I see an article from Fox News or MSNBC, I am going to expect the conclusions to be very biased but the underlying facts presented in the article to be reasonably accurate, as both publications have a relative commitment to not being caught relaying objectively false information.
If, on the other hand, I see something from Breitbart or OccupyDemocrats, I should expect there to be serious falsehoods in the core truths used to populate the article.
There is this idea floating around the major news networks are lying to people. What they are doing is editorializing, but by and large, it’s going to be rare that you find objectively false information. On the other hands, the new generation of online-only news sites have virtually no journalistic standards whatsoever. They will simply make up stuff to get people clicking.
My 15 second fact-check process is to look something up in Google and if I can’t find at least 2-3 major news sites reporting on it, I know it’s most likely fake.
If I can find it on 3 sites, then I can cross-reference to get to the bottom of the core facts.
This isn’t a perfect system, but that’s not really the point. At the end of the day, we can’t be 100% certain of what is happening in the world. We have to rely on witnesses and expert testimony and a host of other sources. For me, it’s more a matter of filtering out the objectively false and misleading stuff, so I can be exposed to the rational arguments.
Ian Parsons says
I found myself conflicted about the campaign and the results of the election. At the same time that I was extremely concerned by many of the things that Trump said and did, and strongly disagree with many of his policy positions, I felt the pull of the ‘dark side of the force’ when he claimed “I AM YOUR VOICE” in various campaign rallies, and I felt a resonance with the forgotten people who, like me, feel that their voice has not been heard in society and in their lives. I found it particularly interesting that Evangelical Christians who had judged Bill Clinton for his behavior with Monica Lewinsky (amongst others) were prepared to overlook the same or similar behavior on the part of Trump. Without judgement, I asked them if they could help me understand why they saw things differently between Clinton and Trump. Whatever the answer, I think there is a deep emotional driver which has over-ridden the concerns about Trump’s character and behavior.
I come from a state/county which voted 83% for Clinton, so there is a real echo chamber danger. However, if you go onto any of the newspaper websites which covered the results of the election, and look at the map of the US at county level, I was shocked to see that I could trace an unbroken county-by-county line all the way across the country from the far west of Texas to West Virginia and Pennsylvania, and rarely if ever step through a county which voted less than 70% for Trump, and many of them are up at more than 80%. So there are equal and opposite echo chambers in this divided nation, sharing in common only the intensity of the echo.
Derek Lilly says
Excellent, Thank you for the reminder. I used to spend time with people who disagree with some of my beliefs or lifestyle because I liked something that I saw in their character that I felt close to. It seems over time I have drifted away from that. I plan on looking for looking and re contacting more of those echo busters because I’ve always felt the saying “witness is withness” should be our purpose.
This is timely for me.. I’ve realized more and more the need for unity with each other in spite of our differences of not only opinion, but core doctrine, if our commonality is the crucified and risen Christ. This means letting go the need to convince or bring others to our position, without becoming double minded in order to get along.
Good thoughts, Jacob. I’m a Brit based in Belgium and currently living in Japan, so the echoes are a bit different, but we are all at risk if we don’t do something about it! Thanks for giving us something to think about. ☺
Pat Gannon says
Interesting article, but don’t religious beliefs face the exact same thing?
Our brains know that there is no objective evidence for gods or afterlives. If we had such evidence, we wouldn’t still be debating the subject. Regardless of our brains knowing that they don’t know, we “believe” things for which we have no objective evidence. How can this help but create internal cognitive conflicts, and how can that be good for our mental health?
When I was a kid, I did not see Christianity as a hostile religion. Of course in those days, the LGBTs were still in the closet and women “knew their place” in society. There was an undercurrent that let you know gays were bad, but it wasn’t spoken of a lot, at least not that I remember. Today Christianity is unmistakably the religion of hostility to the other. Part of that surely has to do with those uppity women asserting their rights and the LGBTs coming out of the closet to assert theirs. This is surely part of why Christianity (in general – not speaking of specific denominations, but certainly the Catholic and fundagelical religions apply here) morphed into a religion of hostility to the other. I can’t help but wonder if the things spoken of in this article also contributed to this unpleasant development.
In recent decades we’ve learned so much. We know today that the biblical foundation for Yahweh has washed out. There was no six day creation, no two-person DNA bottleneck, no global flood, no mass Exodus from Egypt and no conquest of Canaan – and without these things, what is the foundation for Yahweh? As believers have learned these things, the internal cognitive conflicts, and cognitive dissonance, I hypothesize, has increased dramatically. As mentioned above, these internal conflicts create mental stress that surely affects our behavior, and, I would suggest, may offer part of the explanation for why Christianity has become so hostile in recent decades.
As another example, many of the terrorists from Islam are educated people. I would suggest that the internal conflicts created by what they have learned that is based on objective evidence, but which conflicts with what they were indoctrinated to believe (neurologists tell us when neurons fire, the brain is wired), creates the kind of internal stress that will drive one to fly into a building or blow up a bunch of innocent people. As mentioned in the article, confirmation bias drives us to seek information that confirms our beliefs (neurons fire – brain is wired) and doing that over and over again, will likely make it all the harder to question those beliefs. Seeking to always look at the other side of any given issue so that two sets of neural paths are created will, I think, reduce the stress created by internal cognitive conflicts. On the other hand, perhaps there is a benefit in lying to ourselves, but I have trouble seeing that as useful to our evolution.
To summarize, the problem, I think, is beliefs themselves. We have to stop “believing in” and instead start “thinking that” such and such is valid to some level of probability. We have to become open mindedly skeptical, particularly about our ancient religions, else we fill ourselves with internal conflict that we manifest by kicking the dog, posting a rant, yelling at the kids or flying an airplane into a building.
What really bites about my hypothesis is that “Don’t Stop Believing” (Journey) is one of my favorite songs. Oh well….
Ian Parsons says
Here you go. Looks like your ideas are gaining some wider traction …
Brian Cox says
I’m a 53 year old white guy who lives on the other side of the political earth from you, and I think your article may be the most important, wise work I have read in a long time. I have been fortunate enough, for the past dozen years, to belong to a fellowship of men and women who regularly make me consider other viewpoints, precisely because of our love and respect for each other. My main mentor personified your statement, “And most importantly, they are the people who, underneath the words, are living worthwhile lives I can’t help but respect.” His was the most useful, humble life I have ever witnessed, and my love and respect for him caused me to open my mind, ears and heart to approaches to life I had previously discounted as ludicrous. My respect for him took away some of the sting of hurt pride I had felt from learning I might have been wrong.
We lost him to cancer last week. I want to thank you for reminding me of this precious facet of our relationship.
Great article Jacob, something I think a few of us who have been on this deconstruction thing for a while are meeting. Do we just keep feeding our own interests instead of actually getting on with what are learning. In fact even a site like Brazen church can have an element of bias confirmation about it. Most raving fundamentalists will have run a mile from the first page! So to try and challenge ourselves to find new territory and those who can disagree but remain engaged is precious indeed. I have found that looking into the world of Richard Rohrs Fransiscan tradition is challenging me but in a really good way. I dont think comfort with what we think we know is ever healthy. The learning is the journey. Not sure I completely agree with finding argumentative facebook friends Just because facebook and twitter have in my experience not been places of genuine engagement. Trolling and closed statements seem to be more coomon. I noticed that Derek Flood who wrote Disarming God has recently given up on facebook. Nevertheless FB or not we do need to find others to sharpen us and challenge any complacent beliefs.
Who ARE you?? How can we both be the smartest person ever born???? Lol this is awesome and I am totally doing this 🙂