Echo Chambers of Anger

Online discussions are a poor indicator of newsworthiness. Too often, they are echo chambers for the indignation of a small minority.

What, precisely, is the relationship between real-world events, traditional media organizations, and online political activists? A recent development allows us to shed some light on the matter: several asylum seekers had recently assembled underneath the Brandenburg Gate, one of Berlin’s most prominent landmarks, to protest what they regard as the unbearable conditions of the German asylum process.

When the protesters arrived in Berlin, they aroused the attention of several activists from the ranks of the Pirate Party. The Pirates quickly proclaimed their solidarity and within a few hours, a veritable discussion was underway on Twitter about the misconduct of the German state and the police forces.

However, the discussion didn’t stop with verified information about conditions in asylum centers, about the reasons for the limitations imposed on asylum seekers, or about the fate of the protesters who had assembled in downtown Berlin. The internet is filled with information about the inhumanity of the asylum process, about the inadequacy of asylum camps, or about the cruelty of government officials and especially of policemen against asylum seekers. But not all this information can be described as “independent” in the journalistic sense of the word. Interviews with those affected by the asylum process don’t always include critical question and don’t allow the government to tell its side of the story.

The problem is that unverified reports are frequently quoted with the same conviction as fact-checked journalistic reporting and analyses. The culture of indignation on the internet has produced a certain consensus about the truthfulness of statements by those who are repressed and embarrassed by the state, as if they did not have interests of their own that might undermine the veracity of their statements. Statements about the failings of government officials are often taken at face value even if they cannot be verified. The consensus is entrenched enough that even a careful remark about the verifiability of information sources might be rejected as inappropriate and morally problematic.

The demonstration in Berlin thus mobilized a network of online supporters, linked to events in the street by a few Pirate Party politicians and online activists who pleaded for donations of warm clothes and hot water.

But the group discussion of the protest functioned as an echo chamber rather than as a megaphone. A few passing pedestrians and tourists stopped and watched, a few policemen gathered nearby, and a few Twitter users without a close connection to the Pirate Party might have seen a reference to the protest in their home feed before moving on to other news. But the discussion happened mostly among a rather small group of networked Pirates and politically-minded online activists.

The more these activists became aware of the apparent lack of concern of the general public, the louder they voiced their moral outrage. But the difference between the density of intra-group networks (i.e. networks that link one Pirate to another Pirate) and the thinness of connections to “outsiders” (i.e. people with whom they are not politically aligned) leads to a misleading view of the world. The issues that network insiders regard as especially important are often barely noticed by the rest of the public. Outsiders react with laughter or indifference.

Faced with this situation, online activists began calling on traditional media organizations to cover the protests. This is truly remarkable: political changes aren’t usually caused by the articulation of outrage and indignation, but occur when established journalistic outlets churn out articles and generate sufficient resonance to turn a small issue into a topic of public discourse.

The reason for this isn’t that too few people use the internet as a source of political information. To the contrary: in the aftermath of the protest, several newspapers and TV stations published articles online that reached a big audience and were widely circulated. The problem is that online activists are often connected only to other online activists. Their communication is limited to those who share the same ideas and beliefs anyway. Within this space of political concurrence, indignation can begin to boil like water in a pressure cooker if it isn’t kept in check by critical interjections from dissenters.

But why did journalists suddenly devote themselves to covering the issue? They, too, fell victim to the echo chamber and to the impression of newsworthiness it produced. Journalists who are active online are, unsurprisingly, well-connected to online activists. After all, Twitter is a good medium if you want to gauge the interests of social critics. The obvious danger is that journalistic inquiries are replaced by the regurgitation of digital noise. The increase in cacophonic noise levels doesn’t always indicate that an issue deserves attention. It might also hint at simple resonance effects emerging from homogenous discussions.

Journalists ought to show an increased awareness of digital noise if they want to avoid being turned into mere amplifiers.

Read more in this column Jörg Friedrich: Local is the new digital

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