This article is longer than my usual blog, but please bear with me; the issues below affect all of us, and they are important to become aware of; after all, you can only keep an eye on something you see.
I watched a fascinating TED talk recently about an African American man, Theo E.J. Wilson, who went “undercover” online as a white supremacist. He did it in order to try and understand where some of the internet trolls who were attacking him were coming from, and to try and discover where they were getting their “information” and ideas from. His findings were insightful.
He discovered something that has become more and more obvious to me lately, and that is that we all live online in “digital echo chambers”. The definition of echo chamber is “A room or other enclosed space that is highly conducive to the production of echoes, particularly one that has been designed and built for this purpose. An insular communication space that is of no interest to outsiders or refuses their input.”
The echo chamber is harmless, though annoying, when it comes to shopping or interest feeds; but it can be catastrophic when it comes to life decisions and social or political views.
“If you surround yourself with voices that echo similar opinions to those you’re feeding out, they will be reinforced in your mind as mainstream, to the point that it can distort your perception of what is the general consensus.”
Alan Martin, Wired
The question growing in my mind is, am I telling algorithms online what I want to see/hear/learn, or visa versa? I’ll give a few examples of what I mean:
Sitting at my dining table chatting over a tea with a friend, our cell phones sat off to one side. We were chatting about holidays, and she spontaneously mentioned Mallorca (Spanish islands). The next time we looked online, we both had ads for Mallorca. This has happened many times – that a live conversation in a private home, with no online searches previously made, have resulted in ads, or articles popping up in suggestions; the conclusion is that Google is listening in on your life. If you don’t have your phone on airplane mode and your cameras blocked (I keep small post-its on both front and back cameras on my phones, as well as my laptop’s camera), chances are you’re giving away a lot more than you want to. If you tend to say your passwords out loud as you’re typing them in, you may be giving them away.
Facebook & co.
Facebook, theoretically a social media site to connect with your friends, in reality decides what it is you see, and whose activities you see in your feed. I haven’t been on Facebook regularly for several months now as I removed it from my home tabs on my browser; that one move has saved a lot of time otherwise being wasted! Now, when I look on Facebook, I literally see the home feed activities from only a handful of friends out of 300+; most of what I now see in my home feed is Facebook ads, FB suggestions, memories they’ve selected, and unrelated video stream suggestions. They’re trying to draw me in; but they’ve missed the memo that I’m only there for real connections with friends, and I intend to keep it that way. Maybe I should turn on my phone’s Wi-Fi and say that out loud… [Keep in mind that Facebook, or Amazon, or Google are not “they” as in human faces seeing your information; they are algorithms designed to harvest it.]
The more time you spend online, the clearer your digital fingerprint becomes; the more the algorithms know about your likes and interests, the more they will feed you just that information. The dark side of this is that, if someone has temptations in a particular area, they will be bombarded by tailor-made algorithmic choices, guiding them toward the thing they may be trying to avoid. A recent article in our local newspaper stated that, according to Netzsieger, a comparison portal, 25% of all searches online are related to pornography. Let that statistic sink in a moment.
.Com is not .Com
And were you aware of the fact that, if you are outside of the borders of the US, a certain monopolistic shopping portal beginning with “Amaz” has been discriminating against you? The prices you see are not the prices an American within the borders of the US are seeing. I found this out recently when I was running a sale on one of my books; the sales price was 99 cents; the usual price is $2.99. But when I went on (I am a registered kindle customer at .com) to see if the sale had begun, the only price I saw was $3.56. That’s nearly a 20% price increase; no sale in sight. When I asked them about it, they gave a fluff algorithmic answer, but did not address the real issue. And they never answered my question whether I, as author, am being paid commission on the higher price or not.
It makes me wonder what else they’re not telling me as both author and as customer, and what else they’ve been charging me more for (likely, everything) than if I lived within the borders of the US; as a result, I’ve taken my online shopping elsewhere. I will be doing further investigation into this, and if you do online shopping, I would recommend you do the same, and call them on the carpet about it – write complaint emails, and make your voices heard! Have friends in other countries check out the prices on the same website and product, and compare.
[Now I have another example of the digital eavesdropping: I’ve been typing up this article in my Word program on my laptop – not directly into the WordPress blog; when I went onto Google to refresh my memory about percentage calculation, I began typing in, “how to calculate” – and it filled in “percentage” – with NO previous such search on my part… they didn’t choose “exchange rate” or any other more common option of mine…]
So, how can we break out of our digital echo chambers and mess with the results of algorithms? There are quite a few ways, actually: Below are a few links to articles about that very topic. I would encourage you to get informed, and put into action various methods to burst the digital bubble, and breathe in the fresh air outside your echo chamber.
Five Ways to Break Out of Your Online Echo Chamber
You can break out of your echo chamber – and here’s how
How To Break Out Of An Echo Chamber – Your Bubble
Escape the echo chamber: How to fix your Facebook News Feed
5 Super Easy Ways to Eliminate Your Echo Chamber
Fake news, echo chambers and filter bubbles: Under-researched and overhyped
18 responses to “Digital Echo Chambers”
Great post, Stephanie. These algorithms are not our friends. Becoming aware is very important. Thanks for the list of articles.
Thank you! You’re welcome – I’m looking forward to implementing some tips from the articles!
I knew that algorithms affected what I was likely to see, but I was shocked about your experience — talking about a subject with a friend while your cell phones were within reach, and having that trigger ads. I don’t pay attention to the ads that appear on the sides of my computer screen. I do have to deal with spam email. I don’t understand why I get so many dating service messages, some sounding pornographic. I have never looked at a porn site, and I’ve been married to the same person for 53 years. They are missing the mark with me.
You can block such ads if they’re showing up online; there is usually an “x”, and you can report them to Google Ads. If they’re coming as spam, and you’re getting a lot, I’d recommend making a new, more difficult email address. You can also just add them to your blocked senders’ list…
As far as my experience goes, I know of quite a few friends who have had the same thing happen; I also know of instances where they’ve discovered their child’s laptop camera (in their bedroom) activated… that’s why I keep mine covered unless I’m actually using it…
I have blocked tons of email senders, but they tend to use different names all the time.
I’ve read of many others who cover their laptop cameras. I’m glad my desktop does not have a camera, and I don’t use the laptop very often.
Well, this post was definitely an eye opener! … as I put post-its on my laptop and iPad cameras.
I’m most disturbed by the Mallorca experience. I’ve heard of such possibilities with the Amazon Echo and other Alexa-type devices because they are on and ‘listening’. Was there one in the vicinity?
Nope; any app that you upload onto your phone has “conditions”; if they require access to your camera and mic (and your contact list, for that matter) unnecessarily, don’t download it! Google play and all the other Google-owned apps on your phone likely gain them access to the camera and mic. That’s why I’ve got it on airplane mode most of the time…
I was more interested in the echo chamber effect than the digital stuff. People do tend to hang about with those of like mind – Trump supporters with Trump supporters and East coast Liberals with East coast Liberals (I’m a Brit but use the U.S. context) and never listen to the other side. I saw a scientist on telly once saying that people hold diametrically opposed views as to ‘the truth’ and quite obviously they can’t both be right. You have to keep in mind that you might be wrong. (And Trump is right? God help us.)
I saw the same thing happen during the Brexit debates; I’m Swiss, but lived in Britain several years, and have friends on both sides of the issue. The level of viciousness was an indication that both sides were in their echo chambers…one side won, one side lost… it remains to be seen whether or not anyone won…
Wow. This is scary stuff.
It is. That’s the thing with living in a “global village”, as we do now; way back when, everyone knew who in their village was trustworthy, who was the village idiot, and who the gossipers were… now, we have no idea, and anonymity amplifies it all, for good and bad…
Thank you for this. I will look into the links you provide too. It is disturbing about the camera, a post-it will be. I thought that was a myth, something I heard in the Snowden movie and my jaw dropped.
I like to mess with my algorithm by clicking on weird links, especially when I search for an expression or usage when I translate.
Sometimes I curse under my breath and sigh when I’m getting ads for gorgeous dresses or shoes on Facebook. In green, because they know it’s my favourite colour. 😉 But since I don’t shop online, basically don’t spend money at all since I don’t earn much, it’s all for fun.
I am of a persuasion that it is necessary to filter out and search for quality in everything you do, including online activity. I like culture and wit and good times. I am more than happy if I’m not served the daily bickering, fighting, opposition.
I have silenced or blocked people with different views in the past if they were rude or also just loud and aggressive. It might be that in this way I have created a zero-bubble zone around me but I also know where to look if I want the bubbles. No need to go far.
The scary part is how this human behaviour and tendencies are exploited. No matter how much I – or anybody else – would stick out, with all the rest we form an exploitable mass. And this is what is so depressing.
I’m like you in many points you mention! I do a lot of surfing online for research, or for things that I like (crafts ideas, supplies, etc.), but I don’t get involved in argumentative discussions online, because I find that, since most people are in bubbles unawares, they are not open to honest, honourable discussion online (though they may be face-to-face).
As far as being exploited, perhaps the best way to avoid it is to be unpredictable. 😉 I’m pretty sure I confuse algorithms with my wide range of eclectic interests and research; but if I want to avoid them, I switch to my Firefox’s private browsing window, and I have my computer set to delete cookies as soon as I close the browser.
Also, take a look at the last link (on the word “propaganize” in the last paragraph) in my most recent article, “History Undusted: Famous Misquote” – it’s a short talk about journalism, but she mentions, in passing, some of the frighteningly common manipulations of mass media…
Thank you, will do.
I already had several reasons to prefer a plain old flip phone that is good at phone calls over a fancy smartphone that is mediocre at many things (and will run up a big bill if I drop it). U have given me more (and more ominous) reasons to remain old-fashioned in this respect.
The dilemma is what to do when the old one bites the dust… I used to have an old cheap one, but it stopped working…
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