image of a clustered red and clustered blue communication network with just a few connections linking the two

Capitol riots, echo chambers and democracy

5 minutes to read
Lauren Zentz

In what follows, I argue that the problem of unchecked corporate media run amok is not their creation of echo chambers. It is instead that social media and news media organizations and their funders have allowed people whose views run against basic democratic principles to gain such a large following that they have been able to claim credibility - to repeat falsehoods as truths frequently enough and across enough speakers-become-movement-leaders that these falsehoods’ repetitions are now treated by many as true and credible claims. 

Echo Chambers or media corporations running wild?

For-profit social media have become so ubiquitous that they actually function as a public good. However, those who lead these corporations, though they know this, combine their profit motives with their own racial biases and their desires to be seen as not infringing on people’s rights to free speech. The latter argument, I believe, is on its face valuable and well-intended; however, the cloaking, under “free speech” claims, of these other motives and biases, have enabled media corporations to let sources of disinformation run wild instead of fact-checking them within an epistemological bubble of communication and actions that are consonant with democratic values. 

democracy is not just freedom willy-nilly; it is absolutely a set of minimum principles 

The problem with arguments, by leaders like Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey to name the two most prominent, that they are trying to encourage or protect free speech is that democracy is not just freedom willy-nilly; it is absolutely a set of minimum principles laid out by documents like Constitutions, precedents set by legal experts, and practices conducted by regular citizens. This is a simple belief that government should be run by and for the people; it should function openly and transparently; and it should work to make *all* of our lives better. This means that even in a democracy built around free speech, there are some principles and points of view on which we cannot disagree in order for our system to function. That means that a functioning democracy in and of itself is an epistemological bubble - an echo chamber in and of itself.

The inherent irony to a democracy founded on free speech, then, is what the present-day Republican Party has been exploiting. They have taken completely anti-democratic principles mired in White Supremacy, attempted to protect and expand that epistemological bubble within “free speech” and “freedom of religion” rights and a nostalgia for a time when things were supposedly better, and turned their desire for supremacy at all costs into a trope of just “different points of view” that must be considered within a functioning democracy, lest our founding principles be egregiously violated. They've turned themselves into the ultimate victims of a free-speech democracy.

Education for democracy

Now don’t get me wrong - we must read these people’s words and examine their actions. A proper education within a functioning democracy comes with the inculcation of critical thinking. Yes, this absolutely entails criticism of the actions of our elected representatives and of the fourth estate - activities that Americans are great at to the point of paranoia at times and complete justification at others.

a functioning democracy in and of itself is an epistemological bubble - an echo chamber in and of itself.

But this also entails open and honest treatments of history and how current actions of various individuals and groups are situated by and within those histories. Is anyone aware that Ted Cruz invoked the very congressional action that ended our country’s post-Civil War attempt at reconstruction and ensured continued suppression of Black votes? What if our education system openly discussed the wrongs of our own country in the ways that we discuss the wrongs of others?

Projects like The 1619 Project address this gap in our basic education - and thusly have inspired an opposite reaction from our current right wing government members, who have attempted to pass laws ensuring that exclusively pro-White Supremacy education, labeled as an education in “patriotism”, takes hold throughout our education system or what is left of it. Programs like Ethnic Studies in Arizona have been attacked by Republican legislators at local, state, and national levels as anti-American and worse, even though students in these classes not only learn what it truly means to participate in civic life; far excel their peers who don’t take the same courses on things like state standardized tests; excel toward college at better rates; and understand their own and others’ ethnic identities and histories better. They are better equipped to participate in a functioning democracy.

Burn it down approach

Since I was born, Republicans have generally run on a platform that government doesn't work, it is too big and should be smaller, and that what America needs is more flag waving and “patriotism”, two symbols entirely imbued with White Supremacist overtones. Then, when these people succeeded in getting elected, they continued to say they were serving “the people” while both throwing a wrench in the actual functioning of democracy, fomenting several bigotries aligned with White patriarchal identity politics, and filtering money to rich people, corporations, and of course themselves.

As they burned things down, their followers, who were largely a group of people they were hurting the most (think Hillbilly Elegy), who were easily inspired by racial identity politics and increasingly vulnerable economically due in large part to the political actions of the very people they voted for, increasingly bought into the burn-it-down approach.

Amid such vulnerability and with the government’s lack of action towards media corporations, along came Fox, Alex Jones, Breitbart, 4- and 8-chan, and finally Trump and Q-Anon. These are simply the logical conclusions to Republican efforts over the course of my lifetime.

So here we are, with a group of rabid White Supremacists feeling ethnically threatened, religiously threatened, and for many, economically threatened, and with no educational experiences that  could have enlightened them otherwise, charging the US Capitol and claiming that their epistemological bubble and their freedom to express that epistemology has been threatened in a such away that *their* democracy does not exist anymore and the government needs to be overthrown until one that represents their epistemology, no matter what the vote count actually is, is placed, forcefully, into power. 

The will of the people 

So many of us saw this coming. After Trump’s election, a bunch of people who believed in the power and promise of democracy organized. They got out the vote. They made phone calls, they protested peacefully, they held community events, they gathered - on social media despite their major concerns about the profit motives and racial biases of Mark and Jack - to express their concern and find a way out.

Their organizing activities are a part of the democratic machinery that has ensured that Americans voted to flip the Senate, the House, and the Presidency to Democratic majorities in the 2020 election. They did so without violence and within the epistemological bubble that believes in the way that democracy functions: Elected representatives represent the will of the people, they are charged with ensuring our well-being through their political actions, they must report to us on exactly what they are doing and how they are doing it, and they must peacefully leave the office when the voters have expressed their will. 

If there is an echo chamber problem in social media, it is not that we have all retreated into our corners; it is that social media corporations, with no limits placed on them by government oversight, gave a profit-driven and racially biased megaphone to people saying they were just speaking freely when really they were inciting an overthrow of our very sacred - with all its warts and shortcomings - epistemological bubble of democracy.