As part of the recent national endeavour to bash social media there has been a lot of talk about ‘echo chambers’ and other forms of ‘epistemological bubbles’ – reflective and enclosing ‘spaces’ – as if these are a new threat and a new invention and why don’t we all go back to listening to experts and believing them like we did in some misty wonderful past – the one where the experts said that slavery was good, black people were stupid and wilful, and women had smaller skulls so they must have less brain? Or, if you want a more recent example, think of the experts who found weapons of mass destruction in Iraq!
As a bit of pointless reactionary froth this debate doesn’t really do any harm and, quite helpfully, makes people think about what knowledge actually is. The fact that some academic and a lot of traditional media sources stir this debate has nothing to do, of course, with their own sense of feeling threatened but it certainly keeps it on a roll.
The first odd thing to say about all this is that echo chambers and bubbles are usually for ‘other’ people. Those of us who comment so ‘knowledgeably’ about such things are far too self-aware to fall into the trap of only talking to people who reaffirm prejudices or agree with our points of view. The second is that there appears to be a fair bit of research evidence that people who trawl the internet are not limited in what they view and read online so the hypothesis has to evolve to say that people have a life outside the bubble but form their opinions inside it.
That isn’t exactly surprising and has arguably always been the case. If your parents are rabid conservatives, you are quite likely to end up as a Tory-boy, and that goes for much else besides. People are influenced by one another in their actions and beliefs as, more worryingly, they may be influenced by God, the Daily Mail, Muslim Extremists, Paddy Power and a million other fairly awful things.
To claim that social media constrains people more than this and coerces them into having opinions is questionable. It might make the process sometimes more visible but is not indicative of some substantive change in human behaviour. We do, as social beings, place a degree of trust in what people say, in what we read and what we hear but, hopefully, we also learn to discriminate between sources, to double-check and cross check, and to filter. If anything, social media and the explosion of knowledge in the 21st Century should make us all the more questioning and that can only be a good thing.
What it also does, as it does this, is to lead to a more complex debate about what is real, true, incontestable, supported by the evidence and so on. This seems to be a place where a lot of people get quite grumpy or smart arsed! So, we have had a lot of debate in the last fifty years about global warming and its impact on the environment and it is easy to get hot under the collar – not from the global warming itself but from people like Donald Trump rubbishing the science. However, that doesn’t make the reality any different. In evidence terms, it is fairly easy to establish that global temperatures are rising but much harder to be authoritative about the impact. At a very local level, experts said we should change our gardening habits in the UK because the climate was now so dry we would need tropical plants. They could be right in the future but they were wrong then!
This is an insignificant example compared to melting icecaps but we don’t have to complain about the breadth and/or the quality of debate to know what the issues are and, if we are not fooled, is it right to criticise others as if they are? And, when people clearly have been fooled in recent history as in the Brexit debate and referendum, it wasn’t social media that did the fooling but the ugly combination of devious self-serving politicians and nasty press barons aided by the feebleness of the respectable media and broadcasters.
We should also be cautious when talking about the rise of the far right in the UK as if that is something which is facilitated by Facebook and Twitter. They may supply the apparatus for these like-minded people to get together but the legitimisation of their views comes straight from the tabloid press with its attacks on immigrants, the ease with which it associates race and crime and the constant demands for firm, reactionary, action – something which has been a feature of these outlets for at least fifty years and long before the Internet ever got going.
There’s also a lot of talk now about post-truth as if everything once used to be so certain and is now questioned. For many people we have always obviously and truthfully needed a nuclear deterrent, selective education and public schools, a Royal family and so on, and people have been shocked by opposing views and astonishingly hostile in their opposition to them. It’s refreshing to have a discussion about some of these things but that doesn’t mean we are in the middle of an informational crisis when nobody knows what is true anymore. It’s nonsense to say that experts do not have a role in these debates either when they have something to contribute.
My sense is that quite a few people are lamenting the passing of the notion that knowledge was always true and reliable, supported by the voice of experts who could be trusted. They now think we have the wisdom of the crowd instead, about which it is easy to be disparaging but which may, if people dig a little deeper, be quite critical in the formation of social knowledge. There’s nothing to stop experts standing out in the crowd!
Other people think that this leads to relativism and the notion that anybody can say what they like and think it is as true as what anybody else says. That isn’t what the wisdom of the crowd says and aberrant or unsupported ideas are going to seem no more valid than they have ever been. There’s a sense in which knowledge is always relative: it changes and is modified over time in terms not only of facts but also of perspective, interpretation and status. It would be odd to think of knowledge as not being in a state of permanent flux.
Finally, if you want to talk about knowledge you have to recognise knowledge as the servant of power and control. At its simplest, power allows you to define the boundaries between what is known and what is heretical. Democratising knowledge is a handy step forward in reducing authoritarian power. It is arguable that the collapse of dictatorships in Eastern Europe and the Middle East is largely attributable to a battle between sources of information where the information feeding in from outside effectively destabilised the status quo. And, of course, it isn’t what you know but who you know that still really counts…