• An Oxford Historian

Deconstructing the Echo Chamber - why arguing with the ridiculous is important

In my line of study, you end up coming across a broad range of very unpalatable opinions. The 'Anglo-Saxons' and 'Vikings' are tied up within a toxic popular imagination of Nationalism and White Supremacy, built partially on deliberate misinterpretation of history and mythology. Archaeology has been misused for political aims for centuries, and I have written elsewhere about how alien conspiracies stem from and reinforce worrying ideas about race. What can we do about stopping the ridiculous and hateful from spreading in the age of the Internet?

Can you Argue with a Conspiracy Theorist?

There is certainly a school of thought that suggests arguing with facts and reason against people with entrenched views does little to persuade them. In fact, there is some evidence to suggest it often does the opposite, creating a system of conflict that forces people to retreat into their own beliefs and support them with a stronger zeal. Here's a good article from Science Focus on the topic, and here is a video by WIRED on conspiracy theories more broadly. But, and this is crucial, in challenging ridiculous, unscientific and downright false narrative, we're not trying to convince the strongest believers. We're not aiming to dethrone the founders of conspiracies or retrieve the people deepest in them - if nothing else has convinced them against it, what help will my voice do? Instead, we're disrupting the pipe-line of radicalisation for potential new members.

The Echo Chamber The consumption of media in the modern world increasingly functions to create echo chambers of single opinions. Certainly there are benefits to the curation of content around things we enjoy. The dangers, however, are clear. It's very easy to fall into a community that exclusively reinforces a dangerous ideal, to suddenly assume that this viewpoint is the norm. Facebook creates an effective echo chamber in which our ideas are reinforced and parroted back to us. Algorithms like that on Tiktok cultivate content that we exclusively agree with. Youtube, in particular, is proving problematic in funneling young impressionable men towards the extreme right.

What you're doing, in challenging irrational, hateful and blatantly incorrect viewpoint is providing evidence that these views are not universal, and shouldn't just automatically be accepted. You're breaking a potential link in the echo chamber, helping to snap people falling into it out of simply finding viewpoints that agree with them. Rather than an endless wall of twisted arguments that reinforce their world view, you're providing a practical alternative.

The 'Vikings' - an Example

Take an example. On one of the more sordid 'Viking' Facebook pages I came across was an individual suggesting that White people were responsible for almost all of history's scientific discoveries. Of course this is bollocks, as even the most flimsy grasp of history would make clear. Yet, he'd presented a set of graphs, pictures and 'academic' references to 'prove' his case. I'll avoid mentioning the exact source he drew this from just in case, but it's a conclusion based on massively cherry-picking data, creating huge straw-man arguments and, presumably, a fair bit of lying. It's part of a much broader and concerning trend that has dogged a study of early medieval Europe for centuries, suggesting that some kind of ethnically pure ancestors, battle-hardened and brave, set the stage for the world.

To most people, that argument is clearly rubbish. It's unsubstantiated, hateful and false. But if you're just beginning your journey into learning about history, what's to tell you that what mascerades as facts are, in reality, not facts? These falsehoods tend, on the surface, to present themselves as based on research and widely supported by the scientific community. If you've just seen 20 tweets from White Nationalists, or watched an hour long Youtube video that subconsciously promotes race theory, doesn't this narrative slip falsely into line, reinforcing a new world view? Does everyone agree with these new points you've found? It is only through the presence of well supported disagreeing voices, arguing against this hate with science and compassion and fact, that the spiral can be broken.

Now I understand the inherent ego here - me, superman, sweeping in to save the day with my Truth and Facts and Logic to redeem those who have gone astray. Nevertheless, it is our duty on the internet to call-out and challenge blatant abuse of facts. If the complete echo chamber no longer exists, individuals will be able to challenge nonsence by themselves, by better being able to identify outright lies and false evidence. It's easy just to roll your eyes at the stupidity of hatred and ignore it because you are in the lucky position of knowing that it IS hatred. This is not as clear to everyone - help construct the world you want to live in.

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