A study conducted by researchers in the UK and Canada has concluded that the internet and social media are not responsible for today’s fragmented society, and that echo chambers do not pose the threat of political polarisation.
An echo chamber is the metaphorical safe space where only certain kinds of beliefs and ideas find entry, and are reinforced by communication and repetition inside the closed system. ‘Personalisation’ algorithms used by social media networks are often understood to be filtering out viewpoints that are different from the ones the user engages with the most.
Grant Blank of the Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford, and Elizabeth Dubois of the Department of Communication, University of Ottawa, used a random sample of adult Internet users in Britain to examine people’s media choices, and the extent those choices were influenced by interactions in echo chambers, against six key variables: age, gender, income, ethnicity, breadth of media use and political interest.
Additional variables such as “left-right political position” and “media diversity” were also used. Political interest was measured through questions like “How interested are you in politics?” Responses were measured on a four-category Likert scale from “No interest at all” to “Very interested”.
Most people use multiple media outlets and social media platforms, and the multitude of information sources on the Internet, in spite of algorithmic personalisation, actually made it easier for people to avoid echo chambers, rather than encourage its development or use, the study found.
“We found evidence that people actively look to confirm the information that they read online. In the process, they often encounter opinions that differ from their own and as a result…, some changed their own opinion on certain issues,” Dr Blank was quoted in a post on the Oxford website.
According to the study, each respondent used an average of four different media sources and had accounts on three different social media platforms. Age, income, ethnicity and gender were not found to significantly influence the likelihood of being in an echo chamber. Political interest, however, did.
Those with a keen political interest consumed content from a host of sources, and were, therefore, less likely to be in an echo chamber. But individuals who were not interested in politics, and refrained from accessing multiple media outlets, were likely to be in an echo chamber, the research found.
The study inferred that only 8% of respondents, who had media diversity scores of 10 or less (out of a possible 48), were part of an echo chamber. The researchers, however, argue that even this minority section may be influenced by friends and family, who are interested in politics and have diverse media diets.
Commenting on the relevance of the study in countries such as India, Dr Blank told The Indian Express in an email, “Every country for which we have data, social media are the least trusted medium. I would expect this to be true in India as well. My understanding of Indian media is that there is vibrant political information on television, print media, and online websites. I would suspect that these are all more important than social media.”