Tuesday 13 March 2018

The Echo Chamber

Having spent a week in a stress and agro-free birding heaven I came back to earth with a bump last Sunday. The sunny skies and lush rainforests of Costa Rica swapped with a replacement bus service from Gatwick, and the now expected every man for himself attitude that pervades Britain came to the fore. Struggling with a cold I needed to get a warmer coat out of my suitcase - I was amazed that people simply stepped over me and around me, I was an inconvenience, in their way. No thought that I might want to get on the bus, or that I would be separated from people I was with. No, f*ck that guy struggling with a suitcase and sneezing constantly, just screw him.

I eventually met back up with Bob at Redhill after travelling on a later bus, and having had time to catch up on UK birding events on Twitter, had discovered that there had been a Snowy Owl on the Norfolk coast. There was a fair amount of chatter about it, and thousands of photographs, but the part that stuck with me was the almost sinister online backlash at perceived bad behaviour. Now having been away I knew nothing about the bird at all, but one of the reasons I rarely attend a UK twitch these days is because of how frequently it heads south and becomes unpleasant, so this did not surprise me at all. It was the usual story – a photo of a few people with cameras, no context given, but flushing alleged and 100% guilt ascribed with no possibility of a differing opinion. The speed and vehemence of response was startling though, all from people identifying themselves as birders ganging up against people they were labelling as photographers. My guess is that many of the contributors to this particular thread had not even been there, yet were perfectly happy to jump in with their identical opinion about how disgraceful this was, how universally awful people with cameras were (vs noble people who only use telescopes), how they should be named and shamed, banned, etc etc.

This is not intended to be a birder vs photographer thread, an us vs them, rather it got me thinking about how negative and poisonous the effects of the vacuum of social media can be. Much of the hysteria around the issues of the day – Brexit, US gun control, Trump, raptor persecution (to name a few where I take an interest) – takes place in echo chambers formed almost entirely if not exclusively of people who all have the same opinions. Debate is absent, people are not interested in the other side of the argument, if they hear it at all they ignore it or demean both it and the people making it. The Trump doctrine.

It’s a two way street though and I am guilty of occupying the echo-chamber myself – I am not an avid user of social media, my only vice is really Twitter, On this platform I choose to see the output of very few people, but taking the Brexit example, a few of them are staunch Remainers. I am myself of course, I believe Brexit is a national folly the likes of which we have never seen, but at least in part my opinions must be based on the very one-sided rhetoric that I see float across my timeline. It must be the same on the other side of the coin. In the same way that I saw a plethora of anti-photographer bile on the Snowy Owl, so I am treated to a vacuum of anti Rees-Mogg and Boris sentiment. A retweet from someone I follow could lead to hundreds of 140 character replies all basically saying the same thing, some deeply insulting and crossing the boundaries of decency. For what it is worth I think Jacob Rees-Mogg is a supercilious so-and-so, and Boris a dangerous cretin, but I am not going to partake in a tasteless and constant monologue. Despite my views I am actually starting to get angry at the futile and pathetically-expressed views that some Remainers constantly trot out. It doesn’t mean I am going to change my mind, but it does make me question the approach to something so important. Snide comments in an echo chamber aren't going to change anything but I suppose it must make people feel better. I fully expect that multiple parallel universes exist where those with opposite opinions voice them in their own single-track hives that would also irritate me even if I happened to agree with them. Both camps propogate the continuing and irreconcilable divisions between them, both are incapable of seeing any other point of view. Toxic.

Now obviously my view is a rational one, whereby I can lucidly give many reasons why leaving the European Union is a very bad idea, and it may be that if I ever came across an intelligent “Leaver” they might have some similarly credible arguments as to why leaving is in fact a positive thing. Hahahahahha – see what I mean about the echo chamber? Very polarising. Similarly being anti blood sports, all I see is negative gamekeeper sentiment. Like Brexit, I cannot make good arguments for why shooting animals is fun and worthwhile, nor why the greed of landowners and the grotesque leisure pursuits of a tiny fraction of the population should trump national biodiversity. It is possible that there are some, but I choose not to hear them. Again, I can’t see that there is a realistic argument for why its acceptable to kill almost the entire population of UK Hen Harriers and any other species that gets in the way of the shooting industry, but in all honestly I have not been looking very hard. I am in the same vacuum that I am criticising. And so are most of the people who partake in online sledging, and that is my point. People get to feel good, to feel part of a movement or a group, to feel accepted as “one of us” – Pro fox or anti fox, shooter or saboteur, perceived birder vs perceived photographer, Leaver or Remainer or Republican vs Democrat, you choose your allegiance based on your values (or your lack of them, haha!) and that’s what you go with. Bandwagons are lurching full-tilt and we are careening to a world where I, not we, is dominant. Was it ever thus? I don’t know.

Back to the Snowy Owl, I don’t bother with UK bird photography any more. It is too busy, too crowded, and I know will encounter far too many people with cameras who I will detest for their ineptitude and their attitude. Equally I will encounter people without cameras who will be out to hate me for even daring to carry a camera, and I want no involvement with them either. These days it seems you're either on one side or the other, with very little middle ground, especially online. I'm a fairly mild mannered person, I also feel life is too short to spend it having slanging matches where nobody will emerge with any credit. So I just avoid it. I want no involvement (with one side or the other) in any debacles, arguments, shouting, either at the time or more likely afterwards and online. I’ve experienced that once and it was suitably chastening. I thought I did the right thing in response but I don’t believe that the venom of the internet voice has declined in any way, in fact I think it has probably got worse – echo chambers breed a sense of confidence, however false - on both sides of any issue. This makes it even harder to have any kind of sensible dialogue as everything is completely polarised. I've not seen this Owl, but I wonder how much of an attempt was made - politely and reasonably made - to ensure that those people without adequate knowledge knew what was acceptable and what was not? I'm going to stick my neck out and say none. Either the dial was just turned straight to an abrasive 11, which does nobody any favours and is not likely to influence behaviour in a positive way, or more likely nothing was said at all until people got home and were sat in front of their computers. 

For that is also a huge part of the echo chamber - behind walls of anonymity people will type what they would never say. The internet emboldens people. It changes people's perception of what is reasonable and what is not. Put simply it has an amazing ability to turn people into somebody that they are not, and hatred and abuse curiously gain respectability. Incredible when you think about it. It does not help that the leader of the free world fuels the fire so frequently, but the internet and other forms of intelligence-free media are some of the reasons he got elected in the first place. And the sad (so sad) thing is that I don't see it changing any time soon. It is here to stay, but please do think about what you can do to slow it down. 


  1. In my mind, your best post in a long time.

  2. You are so right. The echo chamber you describe simply reinforces antipathy. But that's fine because, as you say, no-one wants to hear the other side of the issue. Personally I quite enjoy a debate. After all, when you feel your view is valid and perhaps the correct one (of two or more) it is satisfying to construct and present a reasoned argument. But we now live in a toxic world of shouty, sneery vitriol. Trying reasoned argument is like taking the proverbial knife to a gunfight...

  3. Thanks Seth and Gav, and also Steve G, whose rather witty "what they said above" comment I managed to irretrievably fat-finger delete a moment ago.

  4. So much shouting, so little listening unfortunately. Excellent post.