In a recent interview with The New Yorker, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia professed that he does not read the New York Times or Washington Post, explaining that the latter he finds “shrilly, shrilly liberal.” Scalia, a known conservative, has gotten heat from many who find his choice to only follow media sources that support his own political views to be detrimental. However, Scalia may just be a more visible example of a growing trend where viewers’ or readers’ news content is limited to pieces that agree with their political inclinations. In Echo Chamber: Rush Limbaugh and the Conservative Media Establishment, Jamieson and Cappella use the term “echo chamber” to define this trend, explaining, “we mean to suggest a bounded, enclosed media space that has the potential to both magnify the messages delivered within it and insulate them from rebuttal…. this ‘echo chamber’ creates a common frame of reference and positive feedback loops for those who listen to, read, and watch these media outlets” (11). This post aims to explore the media echo chamber, and ask the question of whether these are walls we build around ourselves or is the chamber constructed without our consent?
Echo Chamber uses conservative media as an example of a structure that attracts and encloses likeminded viewers, in some cases using data about audiences of Rush Limbaugh’s talk radio show. In 2004, Limbaugh, a well-known conservative personality, had an audience in which 63% identified as Republican, 23% Independent, and 12% Democrat. Over the period from 1996 to 2004, his audience only became increasingly Republican (11). However, this trend spreads across the entire ideological spectrum. 80% of readers of the liberal blog Daily Kos describe themselves as Democrats with only less than 1% saying they are Republican. “A central consequence of this kind of self-sorting is what might be called ‘enclave extremism.’ This term refers to the fact that when people end up in enclaves of like-minded people, they usually move toward a more extreme point in the direction to which the groups members were originally inclined” (5). Such growing extremism has a huge potential to be damaging to an already polarized democratic system. One of the first theorizers of enclave extremism was Harvard Law professor Cass Sunstein. He argued that people are perpetuating the media extremism by actively surrounding themselves with the media that reinforces their already formed political prejudices (4).
So, are we really actively bringing this upon ourselves?
Let’s look at the facts. “About two-thirds of Fox News viewers are Christian conservatives, but only a quarter of those who watch ‘The Daily Show’ or ‘Colbert Report’ fit that description, Pew found in 2010. Six in 10 CNN viewers call themselves progressives, compared with only a third of Wall Street Journal readers and a quarter of radio talk-show host Rush Limbaugh’s audience. Conservatives are more likely than liberals to read a daily newspaper, and liberals are more than twice as likely as conservatives to listen to NPR,” (8). The remote, or dial, or even touch screen is at the hand of the audience, and it seems as if this is a man made divide. Studies further show that not only are people choosing these compatible programs, but also they are imputing bias and discarding news from sources that disagree with them (9).
Call back to Scalia’s denial of the Washington Post because he considers their bias to be “shrilly, shrilly liberal.” “Right now, people have more choices than they ever had…but what makes it different is how unwelcoming everyone is to everyone else. People just don’t cross over in their habits, or if they do, they are made to feel very uncomfortable” (1). On a layer of the media echo theory, there does seem to be an active viewer choice that allows them to consciously “cross over” between media sources of different ideological bias. And, data supports that viewers are making this choice that catapults them further into enclave extremism and keeps them within certain sources. However, with the rise of prominence of online news, there exists a deeper layer that news consumers may have very little control over.
Right now, there are two main ways people get their news online: they will search specifically for what they want, or they will look to social sites or blogs that they believe will “tell [them] things that [they] don’t know [they] want to know” (6). Both of these avenues are becoming increasingly filtered, widdling everyone’s online news universe into their own unique echo chamber. The socially created echo chamber is closer to the “reader’s choice” layer discussed above, but there are differences. Social sites, such as Twitter or Pinterest, create a false veneer of serendipity. “If your friends – or just someone with similar interests – finds something that’s interesting, it might be a serendipitous discovery for you as well. There’s just one problem with this method. Human beings are herd animals. Like birds of a feather, we flock together,” (6). So although a reader chooses friends on Facebook or people to follow on Twitter that create their social experience online, it is often done without the intent to limit the information scope. Yet, just as staunch liberals will be happier watching Maddow than Hannity, they will also be more likely to interact with friends who share their same views, and thus share stories on social media that further promulgate those views.
Yet, what I believe to be the most interesting, and scariest, facet of the echo chamber is entrenched within the search avenue of online news. Eli Pariser, the author of The Filter Bubble, explains that although Google once ranked search results solely on popularity, it now tailors all results to the specific person’s online clicking behavior (3). In fact, even if someone logged off their computer, there are 57 signals that Google looks at to personally tailor these results, such as what kind of computer they’re on, what kind of browser they’re using, and even where they are located (10). “There is no standard Google anymore. And you know, the funny thing about this is that it’s hard to see. You can’t see how different your search results are from anyone else’s,” (10). To test out Eli’s theory you can easily do a little experiment he did. Take a friend with different political inclinations and both of you search the same thing on Google, perhaps “Obama.”
Most likely, as occurred with Pariser, you’ll get different news results from different sources. This algorithmic filter on the internet is even seeping into the social avenue as well, as even Facebook filters what is seen on someone’s news feed depending on past clicking history, further narrowing the scope of news. Pariser explained, “and I think, if you take all of these filters together, you take all these algorithms, you get what I call a filter bubble. And your filter bubble is your own personal, unique universe of information that you live in online. And what’s in your filter bubble depends on who you are, and it depends on what you do. But the thing is that you don’t decide what gets in it” (10).
However, just as people can still actively create their own echo chamber, they can also actively leave the filter bubble of the Internet. Studies show that the more technologically savvy readers are able to navigate their way around the filter and seek out arguments opposed to their own viewpoints.
And, in fact, they do (3).
(11) Jamieson, Kathleen Hall., and Joseph N. Cappella. Echo Chamber: Rush Limbaugh and the Conservative Media Establishment. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2008. Print.