Entering the Echo Chamber

I think the most disturbing thing about my entire journey into the world of the anti-vaccine activists was not the vitriol aimed at grieving parents (though that was horrific), but instead the way I found myself slowly becoming more and more likely to actually question along with them.

In a terrifying turn of events, I had swayed from the stoic, rational, fairness-first journalist I wanted to be and had started to wonder whether maybe, just maybe, these people were on to something.

My Facebook news feed lit up every day with new comments made by some prominent anti-vaxxer in Sydney, London, New York, all over the world. Boxes I discovered as I scrolled down the page informed me that the video below ‘needed to be watched by everyone!!!’ as it would ‘make me think twice about vaccination!!!’.

In the process of researching this story I had befriended several anti-vaxxers and added them on Facebook so I could contact them and keep up to date with what was happening in their world. I realised about two months in that I was getting a first hand account of the power of echo chambers.

It was intoxicating. Intoxicating and terrifying and when I realised what was happening I felt… violated? Is that the right word? Perhaps not violated, but I definitely felt as if I was being exposed to a virus that had infected my brain and was beginning to spread.

I could feel it’s tendrils creeping along the ridges on my brain, reaching inside the grey matter and making little connections that had never been there before. Why yes, I thought, there is a chance that Big Pharma are controlling us in our every day lives and everything we know in a medical sense is purely a charade set up for the wealthy to become wealthier.

The logical part of my brain told me that it was true, I knew it wasn’t true, but the virus wasn’t a one off infection. It happened again and again. Each time I went online, there it was, another post from Shawn, another video being shared, another news report being labelled as ‘false’ and ‘attacking the truth’.

Constant barrages of anti-vaxxer rhetoric had begun to warp my view of the topic in dangerous ways. Dangerous words being spread on an addictive platform. In the movie inception, Leonardo Di Caprio’s character, Cobb, tells Saito that the most infectious thing in the world is an idea, and it’s true.

In that movie they entered the dream world and planted an idea inside Cillian Murphy’s unconscious mind, it was a brilliant film, and a work of well written fiction, but it was just that. Fiction.

I was experiencing a real life inception. But in this real life version of the Christopher Nolan blockbuster, my mind was being infiltrated while I was wide awake and doing something that I do multiple times every day.

I read a statistic once that said millennial check their phones more than 157 times per day. That’s about ten times an hour. Once every six minutes. Not all of that is Facebook of course, but a large amount would be social media of some kind. My generation is the generation of instant gratification when it comes to communication.

We send a text, we expect a reply. We post a status, we expect responses. We can send a message to anyone we know without ever having to move anything other than our thumbs.

We can also spend endless hours trawling away and looking at useless crap. Whether it be on Facebook, Reddit, Instagram, Snapchat, we spend a lot of time looking into the window we hold in our hands at the magical world of the Internet.

So as I spent longer and longer following these anti-vaxxer pages and seeing the posts being shared and liked by the anti-vaxxers I befriended, I realised that my entire view through my palm sized window was completely changing.

Whereas I used to see posts from friends in England, nights out, nights in, events and parties, get-togethers and alone time, I had now started to see less and less of that.

I was seeing medical papers with big red circles and crosses through them. I was seeing videos of Del Bigtree “debunking” herd immunity using toy soldiers. I was seeing the face of a boy suffering from multiple sclerosis and the hundreds of comments claiming that this is what vaccines did to children, this is what happens when you let a nasty doctor stick foreign objects into young, innocent children’s bodies.

I had inadvertently wandered into an echo chamber that simply wouldn’t stop.

Because that’s the thing about echo chambers. These spaces that allow for an escape from cognitive dissonance only lead to a constant confirmation of pre-existing beliefs. It doesn’t matter how many times Shawn claimed he was open to alternative points of view, or how many of the anti-vaxxers preached that they wanted pro-vaxxers to visit their pages and have a debate with them, they were never going to change their minds, because to them, they were right.

Everything they saw online proved that they were right. It constantly confirmed that each and every belief they held was the correct belief to have. Because they had surrounded themselves with likeminded people who put it all out there online for others to agree with.

Facebook’s algorithm even promotes this type of echo chamber. The people you interact with more often appear higher in your newsfeed. If you like multiple statuses made by an individual, you are far more likely to see that person cropping up over and over again in the future. It snowballs.

Facebook might start out as a way for a person to gain differing points of view but it soon becomes less and less grey and strays further towards a stark black or a bright white. People actively seek out voices that agree with them, that reflect their own opinions and allow them to speak freely about what they believe without fear of being attacked for it. It’s human nature, we all do it.

The other point that adds to the reverberations of the echo chamber is the fact that anti-vaccination activists and the pages they follow are almost always louder than any pro-vaccine group. They are incredibly active, almost to an impressive level, they post article after article, discussion here, discussion there, video, photo, live stream, etc. It’s unbelievable just how much they put out on a daily basis.

From the other groups there seems to be a relative silence.

As Ken Mcleod told me, this was for a number of reasons. Mostly the fact that the anti-vaxxers got there first. They set up shop early and laid the groundwork for a large operation through the social network. The SAVN were late to the party unfortunately. They had to play catch up to the hundreds of groups that had spawned and grown.

It’s as if the anti-vaxxers all have this mentality of wanting to be a part of some great revolution. The 60’s had protests, the 70’s had protests, the 80’s, 90’s, even the early noughties had protests that were meaningful and big in their message.

There are still protests today, big ones, meaningful ones, ones that have a strong message from downtrodden members of society, demanding social change, but not everyone gets involved. Not everyone has a reason to get involved.

We all live in a lucky time. We are relatively safe, crime is lower than ever before, lifespan is increasing with each new medical breakthrough, we are lucky. But some people want to feel like they are making a big change in the world.

Slacktivism has become a term to describe the way activism is conducted in the age of instant gratification and snapchat filters. We can sit at home in front of the television and read about a terrorist attack somewhere in Europe and straight away Facebook gives us the opportunity to show how much we care about this event by placing an overlay of a country’s flag on our profile picture. It’s quick, it’s easy, and it makes us look good.

Two seconds of work for potential brownie points with anyone else who has changed their profile picture.

We all want to be a part of something historic. We all want to be remembered as a person who stood up for what is right. The anti-vaxxers truly believe that they are correct with what they preach, so to them, they are doing the honourable and moral thing by sharing this information and pleading for others to ‘open their eyes to the truth’ and so on.

Granted they might be going about it in the wrong way, but still, they believe they are doing a genuinely good thing and will be a part of the revolution that will bring down the conspiracy ridden world we live in.

So as I said, I found myself disturbingly wanting to be a part of this great revolution, the one that was based on misinformation and rumour. On tenuous links between unrelated matters. On cherry-picked information from a million different less-than-credible sources. All because I was being exposed to it day after day after day.

So what’s the cure? Is there any cure?

Well perhaps this topic is one that is appropriate in the context I am writing about it in. What if we continue with the concept of this misinformation and confirmation bias being a virus that infects our brains slowly as we enter the echo chamber. If there is a virus there, there should also be a way to prevent or cure the virus.

How about a vaccination?

Early education has been proven countless times to be the most important years of a person’s life. Those formative years in which you learn so much could be a goldmine for preparing kids to spot this kind of thing.

Vaccination against misinformation. That’s the key.