Hanover

14 Aug 2019

Hanover Communications recently partnered with Professor of Behavioural Science Nick Chater, of Warwick Business School, to examine what causes, and how communicators can combat, echo chambers. Gary Cleland, Deputy Managing Director of Hanover’s Corporate practice, sets out what communicators need to know.

Echo chambers aren’t new. Neither is rumour or misinformation. Conspiracy theories have existed for centuries.

But the speed with which ‘facts’ can be generated and spread and the ease with which people can meet like-minded thinkers, form communities and break away from mainstream opinion are unprecedented.

Technology has not created these psychological frailties, but it does amplify them. In our recent work with Professor Chater, he outlined five key psychological forces that create echo chambers. Each is magnified by the power of the internet.

First, limited attention. The brain is a surprisingly slow machine, able to focus on one thing at a time. The idea of ‘multi-tasking’ is largely illusory. We therefore have little choice but to accept most of what we hear or see at face value. In the world of social media we can be deluged by new information from various sources – our starting point, despite what we may think, is to believe it.

Second, we trust our “friends”. Historically, humans lived in small, tight-knit communities. People knew each other and knew who to trust. Our brain has an inclination to trust – but this can backfire in an online world in which close-knit groups are replaced by sprawling networks. We tend to trust if we think these people are friends – but with limited time to assess it’s not always clear who we are trusting.

The internet gives us free reign to select who our “friends” are and block anyone we disagree with.

Next, the desire to associate with “people like us”. Again, this is not a tendency created by the internet. Humans have always wanted to associate with like-minded people – it is a natural instinct to avoid conflict. But traditionally we have also cooperated with other individuals – because we had limited capacity to influence who we lived next to. The internet gives us free reign to select who our “friends” are and block anyone we disagree with.

This directly influences the fourth phenomenon – polarisation. When we are linked to a diverse range of people, we are exposed to a wide spectrum of opinions. The balance of arguments tends to lead most people to the middle ground. When we are disconnected, hearing only one side of any argument, then the norms between groups are diverse. We become more polarised and view the “other” groups as enemies.

Finally, conspiracy theories. The internet makes it much easier for people with a propensity for extreme opinions to find each other and seal themselves off in virtual “spaces”, disconnected from the moderating effect of mainstream opinion.

So, what is to be done? Professor Chater outlined three lessons for communicators wondering how to cut through in a world of echo chambers.

Give people access to the data. While we can often feel besieged by “lies, damn lies and statistics” – the evidence suggests that giving people access to unvarnished data helps to ground debate and squelches misinformation. Expect to see greater transparency from government and business.

Sharper, more striking messaging. In a world of limited attention, conveying the facts effectively and powerfully is crucial. Imagery can be more powerful than any amount of scientific analysis. Communicators should now be spending as much time considering images for a campaign as words.

Finally, we live in a world with a multitude of sources. Yet while people may disagree sharply on matters of opinion, they tend to agree much more on whom to trust. This opens up the possibility of crowd-sources trust ratings for news organisations. In the short term it highlights the importance to communicators of planning for specific, trusted media organisations such as the BBC.

This is part of Hanover’s Art of Engagement Programme.