Presented by Hanover Art of Engagement
Kate Andrews, Associate Director, Institute of Economic Affairs
Nick Chater, Professor of Behavioural Science, Warwick Business School
Alex Forsyth, BBC Political Correspondent
Robert Shrimsley, Editorial Director and UK Political Commentator, The Financial Times
Guto Harri, Senior Adviser, Hanover Communications
The human brain has not significantly evolved in over 200,000 years. While our base operations of fight, flight or freeze might still keep us safe from physical danger, these skills aren’t enough to contend with the constant stimulation of news, emails and marketing in today’s world – all of which demand our attention.
The echo chamber – something which is seen as an intentional winnowing of the views and perspectives we chose to expose ourselves to – has its base in our deepest cognitive abilities. We can only absorb so much information, and to protect ourselves we naturally seek the people and voices we view as similar to our own.
A breakfast panel with experts from both academia and the media hosted by Hanover Communications explored how echo chambers form and operate. The conversation turned to how to communicate effectively within these confines, as well as how to break free from them.
Nick Chater, Professor of Behavioural Science at the Warwick Business School, introduced the phenomenon, pointing out that we have limited attention spans. In order to cope with this, we trust in our friends and associate with people like ourselves. This creates a ‘horrible feedback loop’, in which participants become detached from a wider reality. The forming of these echo chambers then splits people into groups, which causes societal polarisation.
These can be attributed to various sources, including social media. For instance, Twitter cascades are common, and often full of false information. Retweets can explode a story across the internet, courtesy of both people and social bots, and low-credibility messages are disseminated almost as quickly as credible messages. We have no time to tell the difference.
Trusted names and brand dilution
Robert Shrimsley, Editorial Director of the Financial Times, pointed to the challenge faced by media outlets where reputable media brands are being diluted through online sharing. Despite the reverberation of ideas within small groups, it has been proven that people are generally aware of which sources are trustworthy. However, the digital audience – particularly the younger demographic – doesn’t tend go directly to news sources for information. Someone may say that they read about something on social media, diluting the actual source of the news. A carefully researched article by a reputable source faces the danger of losing its veracity when it is stripped of the organisation’s reputation.
Cherry-picking certain facts, discarding others
Kate Andrews, Associate Director at the Institute of Economic Affairs, stressed the importance of the looking at the whole picture. Echo chambers will zoom in on a statistic and not engage with others – but the problem is that numbers can be manipulated. By picking the points that they want to pursue, echo chambers lose the context provided by the wider conversation. Because of this, Kate suggested that it is not the information that we are receiving which is the problem, but people’s attitudes towards that information.
When echo chambers take the limelight
Alex Forsyth, BBC political correspondent, warned that as we continue through the Brexit process there will be more discord and divisions. Through her reporting, she sees the passion from people struggling with everyday issues, for whom Brexit is still a higher level debate, rather than something that is already affecting their daily lives. She contends that people do seek trusted sources, especially when they know that something significant has happened, and want to learn more. In times like these, they turn towards media outlets like the BBC and fact-checking resources; it’s therefore vital that these outlets and media organisations endeavour to maintain public trust through accuracy and impartiality.
How brands can react to attacks from echo chambers
Hanover Senior Adviser Guto Harri posed the question of how brands can react to rude attacks on social media – for example, on Twitter.
Robert emphasised that companies can panic on Twitter. They can try to overcorrect on things, which could provide more fuel to attackers. Sometimes – according to him – things might go away if brands just wait. One rude tweet could just be that.
What can we do?
Alex pointed out that online worlds are very noisy, so we may be listening to a small, loud minority. The danger of this is that we lose the ‘normal’ folk in the middle who aren’t engaging online.
At Hanover, we feel that individuals can protect themselves from getting trapped in echo chambers by staying curious, by consciously seeking views different from their own. No one will pull us out of these bubbles, so we need to break free from our own comfort zones in order to get a sense of the bigger picture. We need to keep discussion going – and to keep actively listening to the world around us.
Businesses need to fight harder to be heard amidst the noise. They need to stay in tune with their consumers, but not give in to echo chambers. It goes back to the building blocks of reputation management – brands need to have clear values, and to be prepared to stand by these and justify their decisions with clear evidence. Rather than shying away from conversation, they need to take part in the debate, but this needs to be done in a sensitive manner – and that is where the art of engagement comes in.
Kate regularly features across the national media, including appearances on the BBC’s Any Questions and Question Time. She has written for the Daily Telegraph, The Times, Spectator Coffee House, and writes a weekly column on Fridays for City AM. She joined in February 2016 as the IEA’s News Editor, overseeing its digital platforms. Kate previously worked as Head of Communications at the Adam Smith Institute, where she handled media and donor relations.
Nick joined Warwick Business School in 2010, after holding chairs in psychology at Warwick and UCL. He has over 200 publications, has won four national awards for psychological research, and has served as Associate Editor for the journals Cognitive Science, Psychological Review, and Psychological Science. He was elected a Fellow of the Cognitive Science Society in 2010 and a Fellow of the British Academy in 2012. Nick is co-founder of the research consultancy Decision Technology; and is on the advisory board of the Cabinet Office’s Behavioural Insight Team (BIT), popularly know as the ‘Nudge Unit’.
Alex has worked for the BBC since 2010, primarily as a Political Correspondent in Westminster but with periods based in Europe and the Middle East. She has spent time as an Education Correspondent and Home Affairs Correspondent, and enjoyed a period at BBC Newsnight. As well as fronting regular news coverage, Alex is an occasional presenter on Radio 4’s The Westminster Hour and Newshour for the BBC’s World Service.
Robert is Editorial Director of the Financial Times. He writes a weekly column on British politics and for the FT Weekend magazine. Before this, he served as the FT’s Chief Political Correspondent, News Editor and Managing Editor of FT.com.
Guto is a distinguished broadcaster and presenter, with 18 years of experience working for the BBC in various roles including Chief Political Correspondent and North America Business Correspondent. He also served as the Spokesman and Director of External Affairs for Boris Johnson in his first term as Mayor of London. After this, Guto went to work for Rupert Murdoch at NewsUK, and later John Malone at Liberty Global. As well as Senior Adviser for Hanover, Guto is also Contributing Political editor of GQ Magazine.
This talk was part of Hanover’s Art of Engagement programme.