Privacy is the only working antidote against echo chambers

Posted on Nov 16, 2016 by Rick Falkvinge
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Echo chambers are causing real harm to developing a coherent discourse in any subject, but those echo chambers all depend on identity. Replace the identity with privacy, and the echo chamber cannot function, instead allowing for a diverse range of unidentified opinions and viewpoints.

The term “echo chamber” has gotten a revival lately, and especially after the recent US presidential election: the dangers of only speaking to, and hearing, likeminded people – being in an “echo chamber” where your own opinions are echoed back at you. Facebook is cited as one of the worst echo-chamber environments, and for good reason.

Wall Street Journal’s “Blue Feed, Red Feed” demonstration really highlights how bad the phenomenon is: you only see news stories that reinforce your existing opinions. (If you haven’t seen the demo, it’s worth seeing.) Since Facebook is a for-profit company, it tries to keep us happy, and part of keeping us happy is confirming that we’re right about basically everything we believe.

The reality, of course, is far more complex. But even outside of an environment specifically designed to tell you you’re right about absolutely everything you believe, people tend to seek out such environments on their own, which again highlights the logic of Facebook’s actions. This behavior can be seen in how people gather their Twitter circles and other social media where conformity is not algorithmically ensured.

I would like to contrast this with my country of birth, Sweden. One of the strongest bans in data processing is creating any kind of database about people’s opinions. Having any kind of database and connecting identities to political opinions is absolutely verboten – it is so forbidden I have to use a German word for how forbidden it is, even though Sweden doesn’t use German at all. You can’t get a permit or an exception or anything like that, it’s just point-blank disallowed. The reason, of course, is privacy and negating any kind of ability to discriminate between groups of people based on political opinion.

Compare this to Facebook’s ongoing everyday operation, registering not just political opinions in general but the finest detail of every kind of preference about every single individual.

There’s quite a wow moment of a difference in attitude there, isn’t it?

There are tons of other echo chambers on the Internet. Many Reddit communities would instantly qualify, as would probably most communities or subcommunities.

I’m arguing that social activities on the net, left to themselves, will create echo chambers where no meaningful discourse and challenge of ideas take place as people just talk to other people who confirm their opinions. This takes the form of passive assembly, like on Twitter, or of active grouping, like on Facebook. But both of those require identity (and have indeed become two of the net’s largest identity providers – logging in to third-party sites with Twitter or Facebook is commonplace).

But all this is indeed tied to identity, whether Facebook’s or Twitter’s or some other provider’s identity.

And therefore, the only way to remove it – and to undo the echo chambers – is to remove identity from the equation, and replace it with its opposite, privacy.

When I was leading the Swedish Pirate Party into the European Parliament, I knew that I couldn’t count on hearing what people said around me to get an objective picture – simply because everybody around me tended to agree with me, one way or another. So what I did in the end was to measure the amount of mentions of party names, us vs. the competition, on all Swedish social media. Only when I had data that was disconnected from identity did I have data I could trust. (And the data showed that we would win seats. Which we did.)

In the same way, polls have been misleading because one political camp has shamed the other into not revealing their opinions, when it can be held against them in any way – in other words, when their identity is connected to it. As a result, there have been several surprises on election days recently.

The only way to remove the harm of echo chambers is to re-introduce privacy into the political discourse; to dissociate the message and the idea from the person stating it. When people fear repercussions for floating ideas and perspectives, those ideas and perspectives won’t be seen. Privacy is the only working antidote against echo chambers.

For this reason (and many others), privacy is so much more than an individual luxury. It is a collective necessity.

Privacy remains your own responsibility.

About Rick Falkvinge

Rick is Head of Privacy at Private Internet Access. He is also the founder of the first Pirate Party and is a political evangelist, traveling around Europe and the world to talk and write about ideas of a sensible information policy. Additionally, he has a tech entrepreneur background and loves good whisky and fast motorcycles.

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