Echo Chambers

A great oped from Nicholas Kristof talks about the problems of echo-chambers in the blogosphere. 

This resistance to information that doesn’t mesh with our preconceived beliefs afflicts both liberals and conservatives, but a raft of studies shows that it is a particular problem with conservatives. For example, when voters receive mailings offering them free pamphlets on various political topics, liberals show some interest in getting conservative views. In contrast, conservatives seek only those pamphlets that echo their own views.

Likewise, liberal blogs overwhelmingly link to other liberal blogs or news sources. But with conservative blogs, the tendency is much more pronounced; it is almost a sealed universe.

The situation isn’t hopeless. Similar psychological processes govern our perceptions of race, yet we’ve made great progress in revising our views and reducing prejudices. The same is true of attitudes towards gays.

The only solutions I see are personal ones, to work out daily to build our mental muscles. Just as we force ourselves to nibble on greens and decline cheesecake, we should seek an information diet that includes a salad bar of information sources — with a special focus on unpalatable rubbish from fools. The worse it tastes, the better it may be for us.

This is one of my fears about people getting more and more of their information through bespoke online sources, since it may allow both sides to ignore inconvenient facts that don’t fit their worldview.

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19 Responses to Echo Chambers

  1. Kymbos says:

    It’s very true. Since the change of government, left-leaning blogs appear to have lost their edge. I’ve been checking out the right, and I’m surprised at what a love-in it is. Very little dissent and argument, more self-reinforcing climate skepticism and lefty-hating. Ok, so maybe not that different from the left, just more so.

    At least on LP people argue with each other. Tim Blair comments appear to be a contest of who can hate harder.

  2. swio says:

    There is some evidence from psychology that conservatives are wired to avoid uncertainty or find it uncomfortable. This would explain the difference between the liberal and conservatives blogospheres.

    US Berkely News – Researchers help define what makes a political conservative

    Brains of Liberals, Conservatives May Work Differently

    There does seem to be a self correcting measure in place here. In the early days of the blogosphere the conservative side was miles ahead of its liberal counterpart. It had a bigger audience, much more influence and support within the Republican party and was generally more innovative. I remember reading blogs in the lead up to the Iraq war and the difference was remarkable. That situation has completely reversed over the last few years. Liberal blogosphere/internet powered candidates like Obama, Jon Tester and Jim Webb are having real success while the conservative blogosphere’s efforts are almost irrelevant. The most obvious explaination for this difference is the political cycle with conservatives on the way down but I don’t agree with that assessement. I think the explaination is that conservatives sites now live in such a bubble that its very hard for them to even communicate with, let alone attract supporters, from outside their own tightly knit communities. So groups that become self-referential and closed to outside thinking also close themselves to outsiders and just get smaller and smaller (in relative terms). More open groups, on the other hard, have much more potential to grow.

  3. Patrick says:

    I think that is largely crap. What is Kos or LP or Huffington besides a massive liberal love-in? The difference is that with conservative blogs the same thing happens across seven or eight blogs, not on the one site (powerline, in particular, excepted).

    As for liberal blogosphere’s political efforts, crap, crap and more crap. What is the Kos record so far? Nearly fifty candidates endorsed, 1 successful? Obama is not a liberal blogosphere candidate, Edwards is. Oh, oops, was!

    And the liberal blogosphere largely hates Hillary – who is, ah, em, leading?

    Locally, what about get-up? Who? Forgotten already?

  4. I’m not sure that the results would carry to Australia, given the secular and pragmatic nature of ‘conservatism’ here, compared to the US.

  5. Nemanja Antic says:

    The only solutions I see are personal ones…

    The personal solution to me seems strange – having one’s beliefs challenged is painful and most people avoid it.

    Is this not a public good problem? I think that there is a positive externality to having a well-informed populace which is exposed to both conservative and liberal media (i.e. allows for more better public decision making). If so, maybe it is the role of government to provide an incentive (through some sort of subsidy – although this would be difficult to administer) to individuals to expose themselves to both left- and right-leaning news?

    However, it is much more realistic that such a public good problem will be solved like discrimination against women, gays and other races – through social norms. It is not so much that we force ourselves to decline cheescake and eat greens because its good for us – it’s that we would otherwise be viewed as unhealthy and unfit by our peers (better examples are racism and gay discrimination).

  6. Nemanja Antic says:

    Whoops… I said “more better”… unfortunately I can’t edit the comment.

  7. Patrick says:

    although this would be difficult to administer

    er, why yes, I believe it would be. Slightly more difficult than curing cancer, so why don’t we focus on that first?

  8. Sacha says:

    Before the blogsphere, people often bought newspapers whose views correlated with their own – is the “problem” with the blogsphere significantly different?

  9. Kymbos says:

    There have been many memorable arguments on LP. That’s why I read it. The only posting I’ve seen on Tim Blair’s blog that has raised some argument was about gun control. It was interesting to see conservatives accusing any among them who supported gun control to be weak. Hardly a whole lot of intellectual debate, but at least there was some debate. Maybe I’m missing some good right-leaning blogs?

  10. Patrick says:

    Maybe you are missing this one, whose hapless author attracts considerable antipathy from a fair number of the larva rodents.

    Or, which is even more ‘right-wing’ in a lot of ways than this one (but also more diverse – Tyler’s range of expertise is astounding!). Or, even more so again.

    Or whatever the new currency lad’s address is.


    But, the point I made above remains. LP argues with itself, righty blogs mainly with each other.

  11. Andrew Carr says:

    The really interesting thing with blogs and online forums is the potential for a revival of the public sphere, ala the ancient Greek agora, or 18th century coffee houses. Politics online is much more akin to face to face, with the ability to retort, interact and develop discussions, than the mass media broadcast politics we are used to.

    Its not surprising that those who moved online early have tended to associate mainly with a few key ideological or interest based communities, however as the net extends as a avenue for most of the public to use regularly, we should see more geographic or issue based communities rise, which will necessarily be more diverse in ideological spread. Take Facebook, where politics rises up, it’s usually issue based (Burma, Tibet, Animal Rights) and whilst not a great platform for debate, it is quite diverse in opinions.

    If nothing else these are returning the idea and embrace of large public discussion and debate, which should (slowly) expand to debate across ideologies, as well as within them. We are only starting to see the likely shape of online politics, and the risk of very inward, self-embracing communities is high. But the potential for true cross-ideological and multi-dimensional debate is also greater than it has been at perhaps any time in human history.

  12. Eratosthanes says:

    The other factor in the ‘open-mindedness’ of conservatives vs. liberals is the very principles of liberalism and conservativism themselves.

    Liberalism tends to characterise pluralism as a virtue, conservativism tends to characterise pluralism as counterproductive dissent. Liberalism tends to embrace the ideas of tolerance, compromise and negotiated solutions. Conservativism tends to embrace ideas of victory, intolerance (or as many conservatives so conveniently and ridiculously phrase it ‘zero tolerance’) and enforcement.

    While this appraisal is obviously by no means absolute, it does seem to exist and (as the actual policies of both liberals and conservatives change dramatically over time) in the end it is the only set of principles that unite conservatives with conservatives and liberals with liberals across eras.

    It is pluralism – the tolerance of the coexistence of opposing points of view – that in the end defines liberalism.

    Interestingly enough this difference – more than any other – is what I think is being made manifest currently. While some (Piping Shrike for instance) seem to be arguing that the current government is ‘anti-political’ and charging them with ‘political bankruptcy’ because of a move away from ‘traditional’ policies, what I see is the explicit emergence of the principle that ALWAYS underlies political difference – pluralism – as the front and centre issue.

    It seems to me that the conservatives are still trying to argue about who is right and who is wrong (with the unquestioned assumption that someone must be and that the two parties must fight it out) and can’t work out why Rudd isn’t arguing back but instead acknowledges their point of view and asks them to be involved.

    Far from being the death of partisan politics, this battle is at the very core of it – just on a different axis than we are used to.

    Unless the conservative parties can come to terms with this new axis for the political debate and get over the increasing irrelevance of the old one then they are really in it deep.

  13. christine says:

    Er, sorry, can I just check to make sure I’m reading things that are aligned with my personal political philosophy: this is a right wing blog, is it? Whoops!

    Seriously, don’t think it’s a problem too much. I personally like to be able to get wildly different perspectives on the same issue. There are people who don’t. They wouldn’t get a different perspective from the MSM either.

    BTW, Patrick, I think you missed Catallaxy as an example of a right wing (albeit libertarian type not conservative type) blog in which the participants argue among themselves. Rather a lot.

  14. Patrick says:

    Fair call, Christine – and I am sure that there are many others! I don’t actually read right wing or left wing blogs much – I don’t need to read something I already know/agree with 🙂


    It seems to me that the conservatives are still trying to argue about who is right and who is wrong (with the unquestioned assumption that someone must be and that the two parties must fight it out) and can’t work out why Rudd isn’t arguing back but instead acknowledges their point of view and asks them to be involved.

    Earth to Erastothenes?

  15. ChrisPer says:

    Well I read the righty blogs and certainly there is more snark than analysis, but lets face it, the targets are usually risible.

    I have in the past seen the exact opposite claims made about left-wingers that are here made about righty types. There are decades of history of leftish academics trying to pathologise political disagreement, and these attempts whether by left or right hacks are usually loaded with confirmatory bias and projection. Adorno and his F scale are the type example, but most of his imitators are not as well taken up.

    To me it seems that the assumed moral superiority of people making claims like those above should set any bullshit detector clanging.

  16. ChrisPer says:

    “Falklands. On this he ran against almost everyone else on the British left, and had sharp disagreements with James Fenton. “I had been in Buenos Aires,” he says. “I’d seen what the Galtieri regime was like.” He cites this as an early example of the British left taking reactionary positions. “If it had been up to them the junta would have lasted ten more years and destroyed the society of the Falkland Islands.” He likens the response of liberal friends to the reaction he would get 20 years later when he announced his support for George W Bush. “People would goggle at you as if you were an idiot. There’s no intolerance like liberal intolerance, no closed mindedness like the closed-mindedness of liberals.”

  17. I think the difference between the liberal and conservative blogs is that the liberal view is the current orthodoxy and the conservative ones are less so. It is why it is more possible for liberal blogs to be broader in their sources.

    What amazes me is the way, especially since Rudd has come to power, that some liberal blogs still act as though they are challenging the current orthodoxy when in fact they are very much in line with it (eg global warming).

  18. Verdurous says:


    Kymbos: “Maybe I’m missing some good right-leaning blogs?”
    Patrick: “Maybe you are missing this one, whose hapless author attracts considerable antipathy from a fair number of the larva rodents.”

    Well, it’s official Andrew, Patrick has just declared this a RIGHT WING BLOG !

    Defend yourself against such a sleight Andrew ! What say you?

  19. Andrew Leigh says:

    LOL. Last time I checked, I was variously listed on blogrolls as ‘centre’ and ‘left’. Notwithstanding Patrick, I don’t think anyone presently lists me as ‘right’…

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