“Echo Chambers” and Scientific Misinformation Online

Recent work on Internet “echo chambers” shows how an individual’s beliefs about science, valid or invalid, are reinforced due to the way that social media works (e.g., Facebook).  In short, as Andrews notes, echo chambers describe online media as virtual spaces “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.”

My work on how the Internet functions to facilitate online social movements that resist scientific consensus, such as the vaccine-autism movement, touched on a similar idea a few years ago.  I emphasized how websites link together to form an “echo chamber” of sorts.  I have reproduced the chapter’s synopsis here:

“This chapter explores how the Internet emerged as an invaluable resource for a populist social movement that challenged scientific consensus and framed autism as an instance of medically induced harm. Given the overwhelming scientific evidence debunking the vaccine-autism link, how do claims that vaccines cause autism persist and what is the role of the Internet in their perseverance? I argue that the networking capacity of the Internet allows unbridled, unfiltered claimsmaking across websites (Maratea 2009) and allows parents to validate their experiences with the onset of autism by sharing their stories online with others. The Internet serves as a venue for vaccine-critical parent organizations and nonexpert claimsmakers, who function as ‘movement entrepreneurs’ (Earl and Schussman 2003, p. 157), to catalyze and sustain opposition to scientific consensus with their own forms of evidence supporting their claims that vaccines cause autism.”

The moral of the story: be wary of your social media feed because it might not allow you many alternative perspectives on an issue, and take note of how websites that you use for scientific information make claims and link to one another. Read both the Andrews story and my chapter for more food for thought!

Perez, Victor W. 2012. “The Movement Linking Vaccines to Autism: Parents and the Internet.” Pp. 71-89 in Making Sense of Social Problems: New Images, New Issues, edited by Joel Best and Scott R. Harris. Boulder. CO: Lynne Rienner Publishers.

Andrews, Robin. 2016. “How Misinformation Spreads on the Internet.” IFL Science, January 6. Viewed January 7 at: http://www.iflscience.com/technology/facebook-echo-chambers-help-spread-and-reinforce-misinformation.