One of the great rewards of this blog is the amazing community that’s formed around us: in addition to valuable information, unique perspectives, and much-appreciated support, our commenters bring us some of our best material.
Yesterday, for example, long-time commenter Big Earl posted this video by Rebecca Watson:
It’s a short one, but well worth a watch, as it points to a fascinating phenomenon that makes a great deal of sense in the context of Hoaxtead.
The term ‘online echo chamber‘ (or for the more academically inclined, ‘closed ideology echo chamber’) originates in the fact that when people are interacting online, they tend to block or ignore people whose beliefs or opinions conflict with their own. They tend to hive off into groups of like-minded people, with mostly homogeneous views.
This can lead to a situation in which group members are never exposed to dissenting ideas; thus they are never forced to challenge or reassess their own beliefs. Instead, as they interact with others who share their belief system, they constantly find their ideas and ideologies echoed back at them, which reinforces and strengthens their own belief system and can make them believe that their ideas are in fact the norm.
We should add that this concept does not apply only to conspiracy theorists, religious fanatics, or those with extremist beliefs. People who get all their information from a single source, whether it’s the Mirror, the BBC, or the Times, can be said to live in a sort of echo chamber.
But the experience of connecting online creates a more intense echo chamber experience: unlike in real life, when a person is online they can actively exclude any voices they find disturbing or annoying, and can gravitate toward those who echo and reinforce their own views exclusively.
In an online echo chamber, people begin to lose the ability to question what they hear, as there’s no social reinforcement for dissent or critical thought.
Ideas that contradict the norm are censored, disallowed, or simply not expressed. When outsiders attempt to express alternative ideas, they are shunned, shamed, called names that identify them as beyond the pale: ‘paedo-lover’, ‘cointel pro’, ‘Illuminati shill’, ‘cult member’…you get the idea.
On the other hand, if one person makes a statement that meshes with the overall beliefs of the group, that statement will be uncritically accepted, and then re-broadcast from group member to group member, often gathering embellishments as it travels through the group.
Hoaxtead as echo chamber
When Abe, Ella, Belinda, Sabine, Charlotte, and Angela started Hoaxtead in 2014, one of their objectives was to spread the hoax far and wide, in as short a time as possible. It’s a classic marketing strategy: ensure the ‘product’ makes an initial splash with the right people, and let them do some of the work of spreading the word.
So the Hoaxtead plotters initially contacted big names like Gerrish and Maloney; they tried to make use of CSA activist groups, whose members they hoped would immediately assume that the children’s videos were the real thing. Charlotte Ward Alton, already known in the conspiritainment community, set up her Hamster Research blog to blast out the news and reach people who’d be predisposed to believe the story.
It was all carefully calculated to reach an uncritical audience. An audience that would defend the hoax without question, that would attack any unbelievers, that would feel dedicated to spreading the word to others with the same beliefs.
For those of us who’ve opposed the hoax over the past year, one of the hardest tasks has been to ‘get through’ to the Hoaxtead gang. Nothing anyone can say seems to break through the echo chamber effect. Not facts, not arguments, not refutations of their own arguments—they seem to shrug it off, while repeating their own allegations like a protective mantra.
Most of us have had the experience of being called ‘cult members’, ‘MI 5 operatives’, or (the worst possible thing to a Hoaxteader) ‘RD’. Do they really believe we’re all RD, or is this just their way of signalling to their group that they are holding steadfastly to the groupthink they’ve all embraced?
Is there a way out of the echo chamber?
Yes, of course there is.
Those who want to move out of their echo chamber comfort zone will do so by venturing to consider others’ ideas. They’ll do it by thinking of disagreement as, well, disagreement, and not an affront to everything they hold dear. They’ll do it by realising that there’s a whole other world out here, full of nuances and complexity.
But ultimately, the way out of the online conspiranoid bubble reminds us of an old riddle: “How many psychologists does it take to change a light bulb?” Answer: “Only one, but the light bulb has to want to change”.