In praise of echo chambers

Is there really anything wrong with the social media echo chamber? Despite liberal commentators and right wing firebrands blasting them as bastions of groupthink, they are, sometimes at least, pretty great. I mean, would you rather be racially abused by nazis on a daily basis or would you rather interact with like minded people, where you can share memes and gently roast each other?

The concept of the social media echo chamber is widely used to berate young(ish) leftists online. These are people the far right might describe as snowflakes, and who the liberal centre would probably call iPhone socialists.

The ur-text of this particular trend is the now infamous article published by The Atlantic called ‘The Coddling of the American Mind’. In it, big-brained and highly rational intellectuals Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff criticise what they view as the over-sensitivity of a generation of college students raised on critical theory. Put simply, safe spaces, microagressions and trigger warnings are a threat to intellectual curiosity and ambition.

Although they don’t mention echo chambers in the piece, they suggest that social media has nevertheless played an important role in this process of coddling. “Social media makes it extraordinarily easy to join crusades, express solidarity and outrage, and shun traitors,” they write. For Haidt and Lukianoff, social media allows people to build identities around reaction and opposition.

The problem with the whole argument is that it treats safe spaces and trigger warnings as the problem. For two ostensibly intellectual guys, they can’t really engage with the idea of what it might mean to build safer spaces, who it might allow to speak, and how it might change and help to tackle existing structural biases.

By extension then, it completely fails to understand why echo chambers might not actually be such a bad thing.

Admittedly, in the quotation above they use a word that suggests they are almost on the right track: solidarity. It’s sad that they don’t seem to be able to get to why such a thing might be valuable people during an age of precariousness, atomization, and reactionary politics.

To recall what I wrote yesterday about Tumblr: one of the very reasons people are nostalgic for the platform is precisely because they allowed people to build safe communities. Tumblr was full of echo chambers - it just didn’t have the volatile political energy that would come just a few years later.

And while some people might think that it’s the result of digital echo chambers that we’re in this horrifying mess, it’s perhaps much better to look at the changing shape of the global economy which is destroying the opportunities, hope, and mental health of younger generations.

Reckoning with the violent consequences of social media echo chambers

Although I think it’s important that we don’t get stuck on criticising echo chambers from a liberal or right wing perspective, this isn’t to say that they’re always fine. I used the word ‘sometimes’ quite deliberately in the first paragraph.

It’s entirely correct to say that echo chambers are playing a part in violent extremism. Incel communities in particular are echo chambers in which violent and misogynistic rhetoric swirls like poison, undiluted and growing more and more powerful and intoxicating to those who are exposed to it.

This article in The New York Times explains the link between Incel communities and the Toronto van attack in April last year, but it is careful to simply dismiss online communities as dangerous. The author, Amanda Taub, makes a clear distinction between incel and alt-right communities and others like Black Lives Matter:

“Social media has played a powerful role for genuinely marginalized communities, helping them come together and make themselves heard. The Black Lives Matter and Me Too movements, for instance, pushed their way onto the national agenda in part by using social media. But where those movements seek to dismantle systems of discrimination, the growing online communities of angry white men are fighting against change.”

This is the critical point. Railing against echo chambers in the abstract and suggesting that activists engage with the perspective of a racist, misogynist simply in the name of fairness or intellectual curiosity is absurd.

It’s telling that Jonathan Haidt and Lukianoff don’t consider the ‘coddling’ of the minds of incels and other angry young white men. Presumably they these communities are just a natural consequence of oversensitive and aggressive do-gooders dominating sociology seminars.

But there’s a further point that we also need to think about. Yes incel and alt-right online communities are dangerous echo chambers but we can’t disconnect these communities from a complex picture that spreads far beyond the digital sphere into politics, economics, culture - everything. If we’re going to really solve these issues, we need to think beyond simply policing Online more effectively.

A starting point, perhaps, is to stop treating left wing online communities as the cause of extremism. Trigger warnings shouldn’t produce a violent response from someone. A hashtag shouldn’t make someone commit murder.

Moreover, it’s not up to these communities to accomodate groups of people that have no interest in accomodating them - building a better and more secure future requires space to think, talk, discuss - if online echo chambers helps people to do that as the world goes to hell, then that’s got to be a good thing.