Echo Chamber: a room with sound-reflecting walls used for producing hollow or echoing sound effects
—often used figuratively.
Most of the time, echo chambers are amazing, secret shared spaces, acoustic marvels. See the Whispering Gallery of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London or the famous subterranean chambers at Capitol Studios in Hollywood.
Unfortunately, “figurative” echo chambers just don’t produce the same vibe. A prime example is my renewed optimism every March that this is finally the year for the Washington Nationals. I spend all winter reading and talking with other fans about which free agents the Nats have signed and why this will finally get them over the hump. Players talk about how they incorporated hot yoga into their offseason conditioning program, which I’ll translate to mean there will be a surge in home runs in the hot, humid DC summer. Advanced stats project breakout seasons for practically the entire roster.
Of course, there are plenty of critics out there to counterbalance my irrational optimism. Some are less articulate than others (hello, Phillies fans!). Even my loving wife cautions that the Nats will break my heart again. But, in the cold, dark winter, I willfully shut out all the haters in favor of my sweet summer dreams. And, yet, here we are still waiting for the Nationals to win their first playoff series.
Public policy is another arena in which echo chambers don’t support balanced, rational thinking. There are two recent prime examples surrounding major tech companies that are suffering from the echo chamber effect:
A more balanced approach
Facebook recently announced that it would develop its own digital currency, Libra. It’s a big swing with grand slam potential. Quite frankly, it makes a ton of sense as Facebook has massive scale and a well-suited combination of services. However, Facebook dramatically underestimated the reputational harm caused by the Cambridge Analytica scandal, its previous settlement with the FTC for privacy violations, a key area for banking and other regulators concerned about the ability of dark money to flow through Libra.
The company also failed to anticipate basic questions from lawmakers such as how much anonymity would be granted to users of the service. Their rollout strategy basically amounted to “we got this, bro!” At a Senate Banking Committee hearing this week, Facebook’s David Marcus was forced to concede that they will not launch Libra until regulators’ concerns are addressed.
Manipulation and the market
The Senate Judiciary Committee also convened a hearing to look at whether (and how) Google tweaks its algorithms to impact speech and profits. Admittedly, there is a lot we don’t know here. Even Subcommittee Chairman Ted Cruz (R-TX) acknowledged that he has only seen anecdotal evidence that Google deprioritizes conservative voices.
However, Google clearly prioritizes its own sites in search as well as the ads that net the biggest profits for Google. As the dominant player in the ad serving landscape, it’s clear that the company’s algorithms are tuned to make the most money for Google to detriment of consumers and competitors.
There are major concerns about real and perceived behaviors that have major impacts on a wide swath of democratic discourse and commercial activity. So, against that backdrop, Google’s new global head of government relations wrote and testified that Google’s algorithms do not factor in political views. As evidence, he cited Google’s diverse workforce and one study. But, as Senator Josh Hawley (R-MO) reminded his colleagues, Google has a history of ideological censorship, such as when they accommodated the Chinese government to operate in that country.
Despite the duopoly’s posturing, lobbying, and academic influence, there’s a rising sentiment that they can’t be trusted. In fact, Senator Hawley pointedly asked Google’s head lobbyist “why would we believe you about anything?” Despite direct pleas from Senators Hawley and Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Google wouldn’t even agree to have a 3rd party conduct an independent audit to ensure compliance with Google’s stated claims of non-bias. The whole interaction underscores the fact that Google has essentially evaded Congress and the industry about how its algorithms work – often to the detriment of competitors and consumers alike.
Both Facebook and Google’s approaches to Congress felt like they had been developed in an expensive, lobbyist-enabled echo chamber. We can shake our heads at the ludicrousness of these situations. But the reality is that these duopoly built echo-chambers yield far greater consequences than the dashed dreams of a middle-aged baseball fan. These two companies shape public discourse throughout the world. They also dominate the digital advertising landscape, raking in massive profits, and deciding the winners and losers in the marketplace. Echo chambers are not the place in which balanced, constructive strategies are conceived. It is time we demand more from Google and Facebook than obfuscation and the raw exercise of market power.