What is The Echo Chamber Project?

When referring to mass media, an “echo chamber” is a metaphor for a situation where certain ideas are constantly repeated and reinforced, while other ideas are ignored.  The concept of a media echo chamber is related to political propaganda, where a particular message or perspective is pushed while other perspectives are suppressed.  The Echo Chamber Project aims to deliberately create social media echo chambers.


But why?

As social media usage continues to grow, their impact on politics grow as well.  Most social media allow users to choose what kind of content they receive, with the result that people end up seeing only what they choose to see.  The problem with this is that it creates echo chambers in which clever search algorithms eventually learn what you like to see, and stop showing you things that disagree with your point of view.  This is potentially disastrous for society and democracy, if people become blind to events and information outside of their self-created echo chambers.

The Echo Chamber Project aims to deliberately create social media echo chambers so that they can be observed and assessed.  By creating echo chambers for each side of a political debate, then comparing the content within each one, it is hoped that we will be able to identify if dangerous blind spots or misinformation are being created and perpetuated.  It is also hoped that providing free and transparent pre-made echo chambers will allow people to easily visit other sides of the debate, thus making it easier for people to break out of their media bubbles.

What is the method for creating the echo chambers?

The Echo Chamber Project sets up a number of Twitter accounts that follow a certain set of people each, and retweets important things they tweet.  Each of these accounts is literally an “echo chamber”.  Each echo chamber will originally follow a set of people called the “seeds” for each chamber.  If the seeds retweet anyone else in a way that implies their endorsement, that echo chamber will follow that person as well.  These people may be removed from the echo chamber again if the seeds express their disagreement with them at a later date.  Seeds will not be removed from an echo chamber unless there are extraordinary circumstances.

Who is behind this project?

My name is Simon Chun Kwan Chui.  I live in New Zealand.  I have a PhD in Architecture.  I do this in my spare time.  I currently receive no funding for this, but Twitter and WordPress are free, so I also don’t have to spend any money, for now.

Hi, I’m Simon.

What are some potential pitfalls?

It would be disingenuous for me to pretend that this project is immune to potential problems.  The first is that I’m running the whole thing by myself.  If I get into an accident, or if someone offers me a well-paying job, or if for any reason I can’t maintain this project, then it just stops.  The Twitter echo chambers I’ve created only function as long as someone regularly retweets from them.  Without the retweeting, no one can see what the feed looks like from my perspective, short of them making an account for themselves and following the same people.  I’ve considered setting up a bot to automatically do the following and retweeting, but I have decided against it, partly because a bot would lack judgement, and partly because it’ll be skirting close to activity prohibited by the Twitter user agreement.

A second potential problem is my own personal bias.  These echo chambers are curated by me, and while they follow a defined method, that method involves judgement.  Specifically, whether something gets retweeted in the echo chamber or not depends on my assessment of its content.  Each specific project (if there’s to be more than one) will have a defined focus, and this will affect which tweets are considered worthy of retweeting into the echo chamber.  If, for example, a project is to monitor a particular election, then tweets discussing policy should clearly be retweeted.  But what of lighthearted banter?  Should it be important in that it illustrates the candidate’s personality, or is it fluff that will not affect how anyone votes?  Simply by choosing what to retweet, I am shaping the echo chambers.

Given the above, some disclosure is necessary.  I personally lean towards the left of the political spectrum.  I consider myself progressive.  I am a technology optimist.  I am an atheist.  I believe climate change is real and is significantly caused by human activity.  I am anti-war.  I strive towards greater equity.  Feel free to tell me if you think there’s anything else I need to clarify about my own potential bias.  I will do what I can to avoid letting my own personal opinions affect the echo chambers – that would work against my own interests, too, as my intent here is break my own media bubble as much as anyone else’s.

The final potential problem I can think of is that this project, simply by existing and doing what it does, may end up affecting public discourse.  This may be a desirable outcome in that I consider media echo chambers to be dangerous for society, and if my work here disrupts them, then I would consider myself successful.  I think that the best way to demonstrate the danger of media echo chamber is to simply show them truthfully to people, so I don’t intend to manipulate or skew the way they are presented.  It must be noted, however, that I am not an entirely neutral observer in this.