Conservatism, Character and Constitution

Fortified Echo Chambers and the Destruction of Dialogue

Scott Adams, creator of the American satirical comic strip Dilbert, used a metaphor back in 2017 that people have been watching ‘two movies on one screen’. This simply means that two opposing sides of the ideological divide are viewing the same events unfold through the lenses of two parallel narrative perceptions. But, this idea is far from being just a metaphor writes Tom Stephens.

In his blog post, Adams argued that “this phenomenon has nothing to do with natural intelligence. We like to think that the people on the other side of the political debate are dumb, under-informed, or just plain evil. That’s not the case. We’re actually experiencing different realities. I mean that literally”.

“That’s how cognitive dissonance and confirmation bias work. They work together to create a spontaneous hallucination that gets reinforced over time. That hallucination becomes your reality until something changes.”

Once this phenomenon is first understood, it becomes practically impossible to unsee. People might be presented with the exact same tweet or slice of news, but will come away with radically different conclusions. For example, if a ‘Blue’ person reads a tweet and sees the actions of a madman and a racist, a ‘Red’ person will see a powerful act of leadership.

The additional facts or context that may or may not come to light later on is of little importance; the Red person and the Blue person have seen enough to reach their judgement. They would rather bury their heads in the sand out of pride rather than entertaining the thought of changing their mind.

The truth is that human beings are far from being rational creatures. Our primary convictions come from our most deeply held beliefs and values. They mould and guide our judgement, regardless of the facts that are presented to us at a later stage.

We are now all well familiar with the concept of ‘echo chambers’. Whether it be on social media or in general day to day life, we seek to find groups of individuals that share our most cherished beliefs, values, and political persuasions. We find comfort in having discussions with kindred spirits, and having our assertions and beliefs constantly reinforced.

Most people, most of the time, will engage with those who are in agreement with them. A Blue person more often than not will get their information from a Blue source, while a Red person will get their information from a Red source. What we are seeing are both sides of the ideological divide being slowly conditioned to thinking in terms of their side’s narrative, while in turn subsequently enjoying the benefit of having their biases confirmed.

There is of course overlap between the two sides, and usually at the very least, both sides can agree on the premise that the event happened. This is what makes the events that have taken place in the last few weeks rather peculiar. We have got to a point where we are no longer watching the same movie.

For context, the above shows a retweet made by American comedian Seth Rogen; containing a viral video posted on the 3rd June, depicting scenes from the riots that have been taking place in America. The video in question was an edited copy of Tucker Carlson’s monologue on Fox News’ Tucker Carlson Tonight. Bon Iverson, the Twitter user that posted the tweet, captioned the video “I made some slight adjustments to Tucker Carlson’s monologue about protesters”.  Instead of the video that originally depicted only people committing acts of vandalism, the edited version instead only showed clips of police officers committing acts of brutality against protesters.

We can no longer agree on the events that happened in the first place. The alternative narratives, once running side by side, have diverged to such a great extent that they are no longer parallel at all. This has created such an incredibly hostile environment, to the point where we cannot even begin to agree on the same premise. Each side believes their own side’s sources to be wholly trustworthy, while the opposite side’s sources to be wholly untrustworthy. If they are presented with evidence from an opposing side’s source, they can seek to verify the information through their own side’s source. If their own side’s source has no recollection that the event even happened, it can be easily dismissed as an outlier, or even faked or fraudulent.

We no longer just have alternative opinions, but alternative facts as well. There have even been examples in the past few weeks of reporters that are watching events unfold, only to later deny the very things they witnessed. One would think, with today’s ease of access to information, this would not have become a problem as insurmountable as it has become.

It is as if each side of the ideological divide has begun to buttress and fortify the walls around itself. And when a trojan horse containing evidence that contradicts their narrative somehow enters the echo chamber’s fortified walls, its reality is swiftly denied.

So how can we begin to bridge the gap? How can we change our two-movie scenario back to the one movie? Scott Adams suggested that “one of [the sides] needs to see our expectations violated in ways that even cognitive dissonance can’t explain away.” This is much easier said than done.

Tom Stephens is a co-founder of Cardiff Students for Liberty.

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