• Thomas Godfrey

The rifeness of echo chambers is emboldening the fringes

It can feel difficult to know who to trust anymore. With a proliferation of news sources from all corners of the Overton window, keeping a balanced diet of news has almost become impossible. Even the “impartial” BBC has come under fire from all sides (which is normally a good indication that it’s doing its job), with a right-wing #defundtheBBC campaign gathering pace on Twitter, accumulating 75,000 followers since the beginning of June.

I’ve previously written, back in the far away times of three weeks ago, about why half of Egypt’s 2011 revolution was an overhaul in how Egyptians accessed information: breaking free from the shackles of state-controlled media to organise and spread stories over social media platforms, including that of Khaleed Saeed’s torturous death at the hands of the Egyptian Police, something that proved a trigger for the overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak just eight months later. Eventually, Egyptian authorities recognised its power and cut all internet access for the entirety of Egypt, but by then it was too late: the people knew the government was weak.

As the second law dictates every action has an opposite reaction, whilst social media usage gave birth to the citizen journalist, it also began to breed an underworld of conspiracy, manipulation and extremism. In truth, it is terrifyingly easy to frame a tweet, post or statement as real - something found out this week by Daily Mail columnist Amanda Platell and Cambridge professor Priamvada Gopal.

After Gopal allegedly tweeted “Now we have the opportunity to carry out a resolute offensive against the white, break their resistance, eliminate them as a class and replace their livelihoods with the livelihoods of people of colour and LGBTQ”, the Daily Mail columnist included the full quote in her 27th June piece, prompting Gopal to threaten legal action - releasing a statement saying “my lawyers will be perusing the Daily Mail” and that twitter itself could clarify she had never sent the tweet involved. The issue for us all is that fake tweet screenshot appears perfectly legitimate. If it really is that easy to fool the UK’s second largest newspaper and it’s team of writers editors and lawyers, how easy is it to fool an emotionally charged, angry twitter user stuck firmly in an echo chamber of their own choice?

Gopal’s fake tweet was presented as real by the Daily Mail

Another reason for ‘cyberspace’s’ refusal to challenge the content they see, but rather accept it at face value based on an emotional response, is down to platforms’ use of algorithmic echo chambers that constantly feed a user content they aren’t challenged by. The philosopher C. Thi Nguyen puts this down to echo chambers isolating members by changing whom they trust”. Any source of information that doesn’t fit the narrative of a particular echo chamber is regarded as “fake news”, no matter what the news actually is or even if it is legitimately accurate.“Echo chambers aren’t just on the right. I’ve seen echo chambers on the left, but also on parenting forums, nutritional forums and even around exercise methods.”

If you’re a Conservative, you see posts by conservatives. Liberals see tweets by liberals. Over time, echo chambers create distrust in the outside world, with the only ways to circumvent the algorithmic clamps of confirmation bias being to follow everybody, or nobody at all; so long as you keep the code guessing.

As we see more and more stories, videos and tweets that we agree with we also begin to trust them more; eventually simply passing off what we believe and want to be true as the truth itself, without challenge or thought. The boisterousness of Social Media has disrupted not only the media industry itself but also the minds of its users - 80% of tweets sent by just 10% of accounts, meaning it is often the loudest tweeters who are the ones most heard (and even then only by people who support them).

Suddenly, the world is finding it intrinsically difficult to distinguish what is real, and what is fake. When even the fact checkers need fact checking, what hope have we got left?

“Do you understand that?”

Bubbling away under the surface, the masters of the dark arts of manipulation are the fringes of both sides. On the right, Alex Jones’ Infowars has only ever seen the light of mainstream as a source of comedy, with “hilarious” clips of the three-time divorcee threatening to kill his neighbours, claim Hillary Clinton is at the base of a pizza-shop orientated paedophile ring, and a now famous trademark outburst including the immortal line “they’re putting chemicals in the water... that turn the frigging frogs gay... do you understand that?” The outburst is often featured on late night television and in Youtube compilations, where a 10 minute megamix of his “freakouts” has amassed 2.2 million views.

Jones’ content may seem like a spot of harmless fun, but his site, Infowars, has become a cesspit of conspiracy, disinformation, and malicious attacks. One significantly less laughable incident involved the Infowars founder branding the 2012 Sandy Hook School shooting, in which 20 children died, was a “false flag” attack that used child actors (something he later conceded wasn’t true following a lengthy and costly $100,000 lawsuit filed by a victim’s parents). When he isn’t labelling Bill Gates a “little murdering eugenicist”, Jones can be heard promoting his own range of products, something Der Speigel estimate comprises two thirds of his riches, which includes pills and drinks with questionable benefits to problems that don’t exist unless Alex Jones has convinced you that they do. Most notably of all is his “water filtration” device, which continently solves the problem Jones has often raised of supposed government-initiated IQ reduction programmes through the use of fluoride in the water supply.

The world laughed at Donald Trump. He won. The world laughed at Boris Johnson. He won. With a bigger audience than most legacy networks and a loyal army of followers, it’s hard to deny Jones isn’t winning either.


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