These red flags can let you know when you’re in an online echo chamber
Researchers at UC Santa Cruz have identified specific elements of tone and style in online speech associated with hyperpartisan echo chambers. The findings are now published in the journal Trading & Society†
Online echo chambers are virtual spaces where like-minded individuals gather. Previous research has shown that people are more likely to believe and share information they encounter in these spaces because it confirms their existing beliefs. Echo chambers are also an ideal venue for partisanship, or rigid political ideology that shows a strong bias towards one perspective while attacking another.
Hyperpartisan communication is not objectively or necessarily grounded in fact, and research has shown that some social media users who routinely engage in this mode of communication are also spreading misinformation: content that is intentionally misleading.
“Hyperpartisan communication is related to what we call ‘alternative reality communication,'” explains psychology professor Jean E. Fox Tree, senior author of the new paper. “Examples include things like urban legends, misinformation, fake news, and any type of information that is exaggerated in various ways. It’s important to understand why this kind of information is gaining so much traction, and one theory is that there’s a shared style of communication that’s part of that.” from.”
In particular, alternative reality communication has previously been shown to contain aspects such as strong emotions and the display of status within the group, which are believed to contribute to its rapid diffusion. This made the research team wonder whether linguistic markers of spontaneous communication could reliably indicate that a room is a hyperpartisan echo chamber. Spontaneous communication is a ready-made way of speaking that involves informality, familiarity and strong emotions, rather than careful composition.
“People use spontaneous communication to create a sense of personal closeness, and that can lead to an increased absorption of information,” says Cognitive Psychology Ph.D. candidate Allison Nguyen, lead author of the new study.
To look for evidence of this style of communication in hyperpartisan spaces, researchers analyzed 47,112 comments on Reddit across eight political subreddits. Four were impartial, with outspoken intentions of facilitating discussion between people of differing views or more moderate political views. The other four were classified as partisan, as they catered to specific political views that were far from the center. Two of them were on the right and two on the left.
The analysis showed that elements of spontaneous communication that convey strong emotions, such as swear words and exclamation points, were good predictors of hyperpartisan echo chambers, as were the pronouns “I” and “you,” which convey familiarity. There was also a strong link to elements that mimic the feel of a face-to-face conversation, including discourse markers, such as “oh,” “well,” and “you know,” which direct the flow of the conversation, and prepositions, such as “with,” “in” and “during”, conveying a sense of space and time.
Non-hyperpartisan subreddits, on the other hand, used a very different style of communication. Those virtual spaces emphasized third-person pronouns, periods as the primary form of punctuation, and the use of quotes. The research team suspects that these language features could be used to convey a distant, neutral approach, with a focus on proof and precision.
The pronounced difference between the general use of spontaneous communication elements in hyperpartisan remarks and the relative lack of these functions on non-hyperpartisan spaces suggests that they can be used to identify hyperpartisan echo chambers. And because impartial communication has been associated with disinformation, these language markers can also be useful for marking areas where disinformation is likely to emerge.
“A lot of people get their news from spaces on the Internet, and maybe this research can help people learn how to tell if they’re in some kind of echo chamber or bubble online,” Nguyen said. “Knowing what to look out for and which areas to be wary of is very important to prevent the spread of disinformation.”
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Allison Nguyen et al, Look, Dude: How hyperpartisan and non-hyperpartisan speech differ in online commentary, Trading & Society (2022). DOI: 10.1177/09579265221108022
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