The Appeal of Echo Chambers
Bert Baumgaertner recognizes that there’s something deeply satisfying about being surrounded by people with like-minded ideologies. But in his business of truth-seeking, he tries to avoid such scenarios, instead surrounding himself with as many dissenting opinions as possible.
As assistant professor of philosophy, Baumgaertner researches the phenomenon of echo chambers — the spaces, such as online forums, media outlets or social groups, in which people exclusively surround themselves with others of similar, often extreme, mindsets, which creates highly structured populations and leads to an amplification of opinions. The result is polarization — when division occurs between groups of people because of different viewpoints. He explores this dynamic in his paper “Yes, No, Maybe So,” published in 2014 by Springer, and more recently in his September 2016 paper “Opinion Strength Influences the Spatial Dynamics of Opinion Formation” in The Journal of Mathematical Sociology.
Baumgaertner built what he calls an agent-based model to research how patterns, with regard to echo chambers and polarization, emerge in different human interactions. This computer simulation program allows individual agents to interact with others based on various sets of rules.
He began with the assumption that amplification of opinion occurs when people find others who agree with them, and therefore feel validated even if no new evidence or argument is presented to them. What became his most significant finding was how polarization can occur with even the slightest bit of amplification. Individuals with the most extreme opinions and least tolerance for compromise become the most influential, even if there are very few of them.
“You might have some agents who make due diligence to meet everybody in the middle,” Baumgaertner said. “And you expect that populations will move toward the center on issues and not toward one side. But if you have even a tiny bit of bias, you can actually produce polarization if the population is structured” — or if individuals only interact with other like-minded people.
The downfall of polarized societies, Baumgaertner said, is that they are “less receptive to the truth,” which proves problematic when attempting to create change.
“Collective action depends on us being able to reach some kind of consensus,” he said. “If we’re highly polarized and the thing creating this polarization has to do with our population structure, it will be more difficult to get that consensus.”
By contrast, Baumgaertner said, “If you have a population that’s less polarized, that means you’re going to listen to people with dissenting opinions on a pretty frequent basis. You’re going to be able to adapt more quickly to whatever influence you’re getting from the outside. It has to do with how responsive populations are to external stimuli, and polarized populations aren’t going to be receptive.”
Baumgaertner noted that with the rise of the internet, the assumption existed that people would have more exposure to dissenting opinions, and evidence-based truths would become more apparent. In fact, the opposite happened.
“I can go to Bert’s forum for everything that Bert agrees with and nothing that Bert disagrees with,” Baumgaertner said. “And I don’t have to listen to what’s being said on other outlets. I can find people online with my exact views and just have interactions with them. The internet had this weird opposite effect where people can find these assenting niche opinions and ignore people on the outside with dissenting opinions.”
He added: “The truth is often inconvenient. We have a natural inclination to meet with people similar to us. We have to be extra diligent and cautious of the type of situations we put ourselves in given that disposition.”
Baumgaertner’s next research project will deal with people’s abilities and willingness to discern fake news from evidence-based news, which he hopes will “highlight just how important philosophy is.”