30 Jul

Filter Bubbles and Echo Chambers: Debunking the Myths

Posted By polity_admin_user

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By Axel Bruns

Filter bubbles and echo chambers have become very widely accepted concepts – so much so that even Barack Obama referenced the filter bubble idea in is farewell speech as President. They’re now frequently used to claim that our current media environments – and in particular social media platforms such as Facebook or Twitter – have affected public debate and led to the rise of hyperpartisan propagandists on the extreme fringes of politics, by enabling people to filter out anything that doesn’t agree with their ideological position.

But these metaphors are built on very flimsy foundations, and it’s high time that we examined the actual evidence for their existence with a critical eye. That’s what my book Are Filter Bubbles Real? sets out to do. There are several recent studies that claim to have identified filter bubbles and echo chambers in search results and social media discussions, yet there are just as many that find no evidence or report contradictory results, so what’s really going on here? Is the impact of these phenomena on public opinion really as significant as common sense seems to suggest?

As it turns out, neither concept is particularly well-defined, and even the authors who first introduced these metaphors to media and communication studies rarely ventured far beyond anecdote and supposition. In the book, I introduce more rigorous definitions, and re-evaluate some of the key research findings of recent studies against these new criteria – and as it turns out, most claims about echo chambers and filter bubbles and their negative impacts on society are significantly overblown. These concepts are very suggestive metaphors, but ultimately they’re myths.

This shouldn’t actually surprise us. Imagine how difficult it would be to completely encapsulate yourself in an echo chamber or filter bubble, in order to receive only information that fits your existing worldview – not just on a single Facebook group or Twitter hashtag, not just on a single social media platform, but in every aspect of your life. To do so is not impossible, strictly speaking – cult members do it. But it requires a level of effort that few ordinary people are likely to commit to.

And in fact, it turns out that those whom we most expect to be caught in filter bubbles – hyperpartisans on the political fringes – are also most actively engaged with the mainstream media, even if they read them from a critical, oppositional perspective. The filter bubble and echo chamber myths have kept us from seeing this more clearly; they’ve sought to blame technology for problems that are, unfortunately, all too human – the unwillingness of polarised political groups in society to engage with one another in order to develop mutual understanding and consensus.

It’s high time we cut through those myths and shifted our focus to the cognitive processes and ideological mindsets that produce such polarisation – and I hope that the critical re-appraisal presented in Are Filter Bubbles Real? can contribute to that shift.

Axel Bruns is an ARC Future Fellow and Professor in the Digital Media Research Centre at Queensland University of Technology in Brisbane, Australia. His latest book, Are Filter Bubbles Real?, is now available from Polity.