Updated 12 months ago

How to be an individual in the age of echo chamber

The World Wide Web has changed the dynamics of information transmission as well as the agenda-setting process. Relevance of facts, in particular when related to social relevant issues, mingle with half-truths and untruths to create informational blends. In such a scenario, as pointed out by, individuals can be uninformed or misinformed and the role of corrections in the diffusion and formation of biased beliefs are not effective.

Eco chambers describe certain areas of the media, particularly the Internet, wherein information or beliefs are reinforced by repetitive transmission inside an enclosed virtual space. These spaces, which also serve to keep contrasting views at bay, may explain why there are so many groups of people online – particularly on Facebook – that steadfastly believe information that is demonstrably nonsensical.

Even ostensibly free citizens rely too much on convention, shared ideas, and generic experiences fostered by a “unity of opinion.” When the “customs of other people” dictate our behavior, we cannot achieve “the principal ingredients of human happiness” including “excellence.”

Users tend to aggregate around preferred contents shaping well defined groups having similar information consumption patterns. Therefore, the exposure to unsubstantiated claims (that are pervasive in online social media) might affect user selection criteria by increasing the attitude to interact with false information.

A claim, whether it is substantiated or not, is given credence in the mind of an individual if the surrounding society deems it acceptable. This is known as confirmation bias, and this study shows that the phenomenon is just as prevalent in online communities as it is in physical ones.

The rise of “collective mediocrity” was exacerbated by the emergence of new media (wide-circulation newspapers in his time) which served only to reinforce uniform, traditional, and unexamined views. In this environment, people’s “thinking is done for them by men much like themselves, addressing them or speaking in their name, on the spur of the moment.”

Mill’s antidote to all of this is a partly familiar model of robust individualism. We owe it to ourselves (and our fellow human beings) to select our own distinctive lifestyles and ideas, and to share them, ceaselessly, with others.

A person “whose desires and impulses are his own—are the expression of his own nature, as it has been developed and modified by his own culture” can be said to have “character.” Such people challenge and elevate their society. The most innovative are “persons of genius” who expose us to “new practices” and ways of living, even as the more hidebound members of society dismiss them as “wild” and “erratic.”

Here is a brief Millian guide to browsing the web:

1. Be self-conscious in thinking about why you are seeking out information. Are you genuinely curious about a topic and anxious to find out more? Or are you seeking to massage or reinforce your pre-existing views?

2. Sample widely different viewpoints and beliefs, including those that deeply challenge what you hold most dear.

3. Be aware that the suggestion to search out the views of intellectual enemies may backfire if you aren’t honest with yourself. The test is if you can be sympathetic to (some of) the positions and beliefs of your real or imagined adversaries—perhaps so sympathetic you even—gasp—find yourself changing your own views.

4. Be humble. Remember that you're fallible too and find ways to engage people and their ideas online or in person.

5. Finally, take advantage of the proliferating research on the myriad arational and irrational factors that shape human cognition and choice. Use these insights to inform your approach to consuming news and information, and to keep you on guard against your own idiosyncrasies and biases.

And please remember: You're not like the others. You say things that no one expects you to. You think you're stupid. You want to be stupid. But you're someone people could learn from.

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