When addressing echo chambers, we may particularly deal with two different matters: Echo chambers and their effects (such as attitude polarization) on the one hand and mechanisms and antecedents (such as selective user behavior) that potentially lead to the formation of echo chambers on the other hand. As for the latter, we can go back to sociological research and focus on the concept of homophily referring to “the principle that a contact between similar people occurs at a higher rate than among dissimilar people” (McPherson, Smith-Lovin, & Cook, 2001, p. 416). In psychological terms, this concept suggests that it is a general human tendency to rather connect with people that are similar with regard to various characteristics (e.g., ethnicity or political leaning) than to dissimilar people. Specifically, the propensity of human beings to associate with others who think similarly in the area of politics (“political homophily”) – outside the Internet – is well documented by a series of studies (see e.g., Alford, Hatemi, Hibbing, Martin, & Eaves, 2011; Morey, Eveland, & Hutchens, 2012). So, if we generally like to be surrounded by similar others in face-to-face communication, why should it not also apply to social media communication?
One argument here could be that the ubiquity and networked nature of social media reinforce this homophily and, therefore, its potential (negative) effects. So, let’s see how homophily currently looks like on social media:
A recent study on online opinion formation surveyed a representative sample of German social media users and non-users (Stark, Magin, & Jürgens, 2017). In sum, the authors find weak evidence for echo chambers in social media as the majority of their subjects reported to be frequently exposed to disconfirming information. Furthermore, they point out that when forming their opinions, people rely on multiple sources, such as TV, newspaper, or face-to-face discussions. Social media are found to be only one (and mostly not the most important) source of information. Supporting this reasoning, Yang and colleagues (2017) studied a representative sample of Colombian social media users. According to the authors, Colombians strongly draw on social media to inform themselves and to discuss about political issues. Contrary to our echo chamber-myth though, even in such seemingly more polarized environments, people are found to be increasingly exposed to ideologically diverse information the more intensely they use social media. Besides, users who were confronted with diverging opinions relatively often were not more likely to exclude them from their social networks. This notion was additionally corroborated by John and Dvir-Gvirsman (2015) who surveyed more than 1000 Israeli Facebook users during the 2014 Gaza fights. They found that only 16% of the users unfriended others (i.e., excluded others from their friend list) who held opposing opinions and ideological leanings during the fighting, thus “homogenizing” their networks politically. Yet, a small portion of political extreme individuals and those with many Facebook friends were particularly prone to political unfriending.
Given this evidence, we preliminarily cannot support the claim that social media are responsible for people generally being trapped inside echo chambers. Previous research let us state that it is a general human tendency to connect with similar others, so that echo chambers cannot be seen as phenomena exclusively prevalent or widely spread in social media. In fact, there seems to be only a small number of people who explicitly terminate connections to dissimilar others within their online social networks. Although the number of studies on homogeneity on the Internet is growing, there remains a lot to be understood about how online echo chambers originally form and how they evolve over time, which will be important issues for upcoming research.
Alford, J. R., Hatemi, P. K., Hibbing, J. R., Martin, N. G., & Eaves, L. J. (2011). The politics of mate choice. Journal of Politics, 73, 362–379. doi:10.1017/S0022381611000016
John, N. A., & Dvir‐Gvirsman, S. (2015). “I Don’t Like You Any More”: Facebook unfriending by Israelis during the Israel–Gaza conflict of 2014. Journal of Communication, 65, 953-974. doi:10.1111/jcom.12188
McPherson, M., Smith-Lovin, L., & Cook, J. (2001). Birds of a feather: Homophily in social networks. Annual Review of Sociology, 27, 415-444. doi:10.1146/annurev.soc.27.1.415
Morey, A. C., Eveland, W. P., Jr., & Hutchens, M. J. (2012). The “who” matters: Types of interpersonal relationships and avoidance of political disagreement. Political. Communication, 29, 86–103. doi:10.1080/10584609.2011.641070.
Stark, B., Magin, M., & Jürgens, P. (2017). Ganz meine Meinung?: Informationsintermediäre und Meinungsbildung – Eine Mehrmethodenstudie am Beispiel von Facebook. LfM-Dokumentation (Band 55). Düsseldorf: Landesanstalt für Medien Nordrhein-Westfalen (LfM).
Yang, J., Barnidge, M., & Rojas, H. (2017). The politics of “Unfriending”: User filtration in response to political disagreement on social media. Computers in Human Behavior, 70, 22-29. doi: 10.1016/j.chb.2016.12.079