One of the most innovative breakthroughs was the Internet in 1983. Ever since its explosive growth, it has brought profound changes to our lives. It has revolutionized and transformed the way we communicate, share information and data, and how we deal with everyday decisions. As of 2021, there are over 4.66 billion active internet users that rapidly disseminate and circulate information across the globe within seconds, connecting users all over the world. We are now more connected than we have ever been in the history of human mankind. The famous, now-deceased scientist and cosmologist, Stephen Hawking once mentioned how the internet has connected all of us, like neurons in a giant brain. Forming one immeasurable and extensive network that acts as a single brain, disseminating petabytes of information every single day and connecting users (synapses) from all over the world. This creates a form of unity and homogeneity throughout the planet. While the internet has paved the way as the “great unifier” of humanity, today the internet has given way to dangerous unforeseen phenomena called Echo Chambers which may perhaps undermine our collective ability to understand the other beliefs and ideologies that inhabit this world.
What is an Echo Chamber?
The expression of echo chamber was originally referred to as a figurative description of what happens when a group or an individual's beliefs and ideologies are reinforced and strengthened by a continuous stream of information repetition, exposure and opinions within a closed system. An echo chamber is an environment where an individual encounters information, content or opinion that reinforces their own beliefs and fights off opposing viewpoints. This creates a close off environment where you are only presented with the information you wish to hear that reinforces your ideas, whether it's true or not. This leads to misinformation and can also lead to confirmation bias, group polarization and in some cases extremism.
Confirmation bias is the tendency to only favor information that reinforces existing beliefs. Instead of accepting and understanding different viewpoints that challenge their ideas and beliefs, an individual will only accept information that is identical to theirs. This makes it harder for the individual to change their opinions or to receive and accept opposite viewpoints even if these viewpoints are based on scientific evidence. For example,
social media has played a key role in the formation of echo chambers, as social media platforms make it possible for users to join groups or communities that share similar ideas, beliefs and ideologies. For instance, if an individual is a climate change sceptic, they could easily find a Facebook group that shares similar beliefs. They are then bombarded with information that keeps reinforcing their beliefs on climate change. Despite the various scientific research done on global warming, individuals who are in an echo chamber would reject these ideas. These factors may lead to risky decision making and could lead people to overlook important information when making decisions. Research suggests that humans are better at making rational choices when processing multiple viewpoints. This is because humans are bombarded with information and do not have the time to carefully process each piece of information to form an unbiased conclusion (Casad, 2021).
With echo chambers and social media, people are becoming more subjectable to confirmation bias. As for safety and security managers, it is vital to understand the consequence of an echo chamber. For example, there is an anti-vaccination movement happening during the COVID-19 pandemic. Individuals who support that movement are entrapped by social media groups that are flooded with fake news and information, creating a biased misperception of the vaccine. This could overall impede the efforts made to fight off COVID-19.
Group polarization refers to the phenomena when a group adopts an attitude or actions that are more extreme than the initial attitudes or action of the individual group members. This means that an individual would adopt attitudes or carry out an action he or she would not have done alone. But being in a group gives the incentive and security to carry out these extreme actions or attitudes. For example, members of a riot. They loot, damage and cause harm to the surrounding environment. As an individual, you would most likely not do that. However, if you're in a social group, you would be more comfortable carrying out the same actions.
This could be harmful as a group could convince users to carry out extreme actions and as an individual, you believe it's perfectly fine to do so. In an extreme case, this could help extremist groups with radicalization.
Echo chambers also contribute to extremism. Extremist groups use social media for their political interest. An echo chamber is a favorable environment that extremist groups can take advantage of. One way of doing this is through aggressive exposure.
The aggressive exposure method refers to having a very tight, controlled, and closed social media sphere. This is the style that the Islamic State (IS) utilizes. Their controlled content consists of graphical images and videos to promote terror. There will be heavy engagement between users to radicalize and recruit them. In addition, they cut out any dissident voices and try to silence or remove anyone that is against their beliefs.
In the end, aggressive exposure is a social media sphere that is heavily controlled. Its content is made of graphical images or videos to instill fear and any outside opinion or views are brutally shot down and silenced. Consequently, you have a social media community that shouts out extreme views that are echo back to the users, reinforcing and empowering their beliefs.
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