Echo chambers – what are they and how do they affect crisis response?

Psychologists call it confirmation bias… My wife calls it selective hearing. And yes, I’m often guilty as charged
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By Casey Chua
Director of Crisis Response, Asia

We only want to hear what we want to hear – only the good stuff, that is.

Psychologists call it confirmation bias. The neuroscientists define it as selective auditory attention. My wife calls it selective hearing. And yes, I’m often guilty as charged.

Most, if not all of us, gravitate toward ideas and opinions that reinforce our existing beliefs. Communicators call it the echo chamber, a figurative term for an environment where people tend to interact with like-minded individuals and consume content that aligns with their pre-existing viewpoints, while often being shielded from diverse or opposing perspectives.

Consequently, personal views are often repeated, reinforced, and rarely challenged. This narrowing of perspectives can lead to extremism, cultural and social divisions, and even the perpetuation of false information.

Echo chambers probably came into existence as soon as modern civilisation began. More recently, we are seeing a meteoric growth in online echo chambers powered by tech giants, rising internet penetration and sophisticated social media algorithms that personalise user experience based on past behaviours and interactions.

Echo chambers can be problematic during a crisis. Let’s look at a few ways where echo chambers could stymie a crisis response or worse still, deepen a crisis.

Confirmation bias: People in echo chambers tend to seek out and amplify information that confirms their pre-existing beliefs. During a crisis, this can lead to the reinforcement of misinformation, false assumptions, and biases, which can hinder the adoption of evidence-based strategies.

Disregard for expertise: Echo chambers can foster distrust in experts and professionals who are crucial for crisis response. When individuals are only exposed to information that aligns with their views, they might dismiss expert opinions that challenge their perspectives, undermining the effectiveness of crisis management strategies.

Limited information: Echo chambers restrict exposure to a narrow range of viewpoints and information. In a crisis, this limited exposure can prevent individuals from understanding the full scope of the situation, including its causes, consequences, and potential solutions. Lack of accurate information can hinder effective decision-making.

Ineffective communication: Crisis management relies on clear and accurate communication to disseminate important information, guidelines, and safety measures. In echo chambers, distorted information or misinformation can spread rapidly, leading to confusion and ineffective responses.

Slow adaptation to change: Echo chambers can make it difficult for people to accept new information as a crisis evolves. They may resist adopting new measures or adjusting their behaviours due to their adherence to pre-existing beliefs, even if those beliefs are not supported by evidence.

Undermined trust: If information from echo chambers conflicts with official communications, it can erode trust in authoritative sources. This can lead to confusion and scepticism, making it challenging to rally public support for crisis management efforts.

Missed opportunities for innovation: Echo chambers discourage exposure to new ideas and approaches. All crises are different and innovative solutions are sometimes needed. Echo chambers can prevent individuals from considering novel strategies or alternative solutions that could be more effective.

To effectively handle a crisis, it’s essential to break down echo chambers by promoting diverse information sources, fostering open dialogue, and encouraging critical thinking. By doing so, individuals and communities can gain a more comprehensive understanding of the crisis, make informed decisions, and contribute to a more cohesive and effective crisis response.

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