Social media and the echo chamber phenomenon
Social media is not just a means of communication, it is where we now socialize. The echo chamber is an excellent metaphor for our constructed social media world. Picture an empty room, no windows, no objects to deflect sound. When you raise your voice in this room, it bounces back, reverberating around you. The harmony of this reverberation is perfect, because there is only one voice. So, we prefer to only let other voices into the room that harmonise well.
Our social media feeds are each a version of this room. We have chosen which voices to let in and the echoes confirm the validity of our voice. We shape our online communities (and often our offline communities) to share our ideas and confirm our biases.
I don’t want to suggest that all people refuse to let in voices that disrupt their harmony. People often seek to build their communities with greater breadth and diversity. But our preferences, friend choices and interactions will shape our feeds. And we are not the only ones shaping our echo chambers. The outlets themselves share our rooms, arranging the voices we hear, adding furniture to the room to modify the sound and standing at the door telling us who to let in.
How echo chambers foster activism
Social media allows people to organise faster and more broadly than ever before. In providing access to a wealth of information, it also opens our eyes to a vast array of social issues. By making issues and events more visible, it can become a tool that encourages conformity. This can be a plus or minus for activism, as people either go with the tide of a movement or avoid movements all together if their circles are not involved.
We are now seeing protest movements on unprecedented scales, protests carried out in full view of our world leaders. Even traditional media channels rely heavily on streaming social media information to shape our news. Via social media, activists are increasingly influencing media, public opinion and, it stands to reason, policies.
Social media also allows activists to create communities, raise funds for actions and legal fees, live stream their actions and interact with a much broader audience.
The downside for activism
Attention is the priority of social media, but engagement can be elusive. In an age of information overload, people have limited online attention spans. The effect of this on news media outlets is clear, but how does it affect online activism?
An increasingly discussed trend is slacktivism or clicktivism. This is where audiences like or share a message, or sign a petition, without engaging any deeper. Some believe increasing people’s ability to engage in broad issues in such a shallow manner stops them from ever delving deeper into these causes. However, Barberá et al suggest that these types of people make up ‘peripheral actors’ who play a very important role in movements. Without peripheral actors, the messages of core activist would not enjoy the reach and amplification.
Mediation of online spaces is another key issue. Social media creates highly mediated spaces where people can stage their lives. Social media feeds often provide carefully curated versions of those lives. But people’s virtual life stories are not the only performances on social media. The impartiality that social media outlets claim to uphold is also simply a performance.  Outlets aim to lock people in to their network, using their information and algorithms to tailor news, ads and the social content of their feeds to suit individuals’ tastes. This performance can detract from the authenticity of a movement, influence its reach and affect its trajectory.
As we shape our social communities, and as they are shaped for us, an element of preaching to the choir creeps in. How can we know if we are mobilizing the right people and exercising our own choices if echo chamber algorithms determine who hears our voice? When it comes to social movements however, some argue that preaching to choir is an advantage, helping to spread messages from one like-minded online community to another.
Finally, the creation of echo chambers leads to the polarisation of audience, in some it inspires determination and passion, while for others it breeds hatred and lead to violence.
These positive and negative aspects need to be weighed up when using social media to create or promote movements.
Which way do the scales tip?
Honestly it is hard to tell. While social media has allowed activist networks to grow and spread in unprecedented ways, the cost may be more shallow engagement. One thing is sure though – messages of social movements are being seen by more people today than ever before. Maybe it is just a matter of learning to harness this power. There are many activists already working at doing exactly that.