Have you ever felt like everything on your social media feed is tailored to you and your beliefs? Or spoke to a friend who thought that their beliefs were held by “everyone”? Well, you and/or your friend may have been stuck in an echo chamber. Researchers have identified the specific tone and style in online speech that is linked to hyperpartisan echo chambers.
Their findings are published in Discourse & Society.
Echo chambers are spaces, often virtual, consisting of like-minded individuals that share their beliefs and often eliminate differing voices and opposing viewpoints. These spaces can confirm peoples' existing beliefs and, therefore, they are likely to believe and share information in these spaces. These spaces are also a place for hyperpartisanship – not objective or rooted in fact – or political ideology that is often rigid, strongly biased, and attacks another viewpoint.
“Hyperpartisan communication is related to what we call ‘alternative reality communication',” explained Professor Jean E. Fox Tree, senior author of the new paper, in a statement. “Examples include things like urban legends, disinformation, fake news, and any type of information that is overblown in various ways. It's important to understand why this type of information gains so much traction, and one theory is there’s a shared style of communication that’s part of that.”
Strong emotion and display of in-group status can contribute to the rapid spread of information, as emotional stories are often more likely to be recalled than non-emotional ones. So, the team looked at the linguistic markers in hyperpartisan and non-hyperpartisan online communities to see if there is a difference in spontaneous communication – a type of speech that includes strong emotion, informality, familiarity, and is often on the fly without the careful construction of the messages.
“People use spontaneous communication in order to create a sense of personal closeness, and that can lead to increased uptake in information,” Allison Nguyen, lead author of the new study, said in a statement.
The researchers analyzed over 47,000 comments on Reddit within eight political subreddits. Four of these subreddits were classified as hyperpartisan, as they catered to specific political viewpoints far from the center (two on the right, two on the left). The research team also looked at four non-hyperpartisan subreddits that stated that they intended the space to facilitate discussion among people with differing viewpoints.
Overall, the style of communication in these hyperpartisan spaces often had strong emotion, such as exclamation marks and swearing. There were also a lot of “I” and “you” pronouns, which help to develop a sense of familiarity. Discourse markers were used to direct the flow of the conversations (for example, “you know”, “oh”, and “well), and these markers also helped to mimic the feeling of face-to-face conversation. To convey a sense of time and space, prepositions (e.g., “during”, “in”, and “with”) were also seen a lot in these spaces.
There was a large contrast when the hyperpartisan subreddits were compared to non-hyperpartisan ones, which used a very different style of communication. The researchers found that these spaces had language that was more neutral and distanced that focused on evidence and precision. These spaces also used quotations and periods as the primary forms of punctuation, along with third-person pronouns.
“A lot of people get their news from spaces on the internet, and maybe this research can help people learn how to spot whether they're in some sort of echo chamber or bubble online,” Nguyen said. “Knowing what to look for and which spaces to be wary in is really important in how we can prevent the spread of disinformation.”
So, when looking at whether you are in an echo chamber, it may be wise to look at the common use of spontaneous communication.