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Digital Echo Chambers - The Coffee Houses of Today

By Lynda Goetz



‘Echo chambers’ may not have been the word or phrase of 2023 (that was ‘authentic’ according to Merriam Webster; ‘rizz’, short for ‘charisma’ apparently, according to the Oxford University Press, and ‘hallucinate’ if you go with the choice of Cambridge University Press), but for journalists and commentators, it has certainly been a much-used phrase over the last year. It has cropped up in articles in The Spectator, The Economist, The Telegraph and many others, including online.  The more frequent use of the term reflects concern that the prevalence of social media has resulted in more and more people getting their news only from sources which echo and thus reinforce their existing prejudices. Is this really the case and if so should it worry us?


It has historically always been the case that humans are pretty tribal and tend to congregate in social groups according to interests, social status, like-minded views and opinions.  This in itself is nothing new.  Hundreds of years ago news would have largely been limited to local news, communicated in person orally, for most people, apart from those few in the privileged positions of power. Town criers might have provided national or international news in larger conurbations. News of wars or of requirements to fight would have come down from local landowners and barons. As literacy increased there were handwritten news sheets containing information on Italian and European wars and politics distributed in Venice in the mid-16th C.  Elsewhere in the world, although the Egyptians had invented papyrus and the Chinese paper, and indeed a form of moveable type and a press, hundreds of years earlier, the idea of distributing news information to the public did not take off.  It was in Europe, more specifically in Germany, with Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press, that the idea of newspapers evolved . From the 17th century onwards the term  ‘newspaper’ became common and all over Europe the format was spreading, although the contents were generally censored by governments. By the 19th century, increased literacy, better and faster printing and the invention of wood- pulp papermaking (paper had previously been made from rags) all contributed to more newspapers and wider readership.


Throughout Europe and parts of the Middle East, coffee houses started opening from the mid-17th century onwards.  By the late 17th century and throughout the 18th century coffee houses became important centres for the distribution and discussion of news. In Oxford, coffee houses became known as ‘Penny Universities’ as the entrance fee of often just one penny provided access to books, print newspapers and much serious and lively discussion both of an academic and a political nature. By 1739 there were 551 coffee houses in London alone. Both Lloyds of London and the London Stock exchange evolved from coffee houses. Coffee houses were the discussion and debating forums of the day and each had a defining characteristic and clientele. They were the echo chambers of their time, and although women were on the whole not welcome, historians generally agree that coffee houses were democratic forums where people from different strata of society could go to discuss the issues of the day.


Coffee shops died out with the arrival of gentleman’s clubs, the government interest in the tea trade and the rise once again of a more snobbish era. Historians also consider that the attempt by coffee houses to control print media may have contributed to their decline. Newspapers, available to the general public, held sway throughout the 19th century. The golden age of newspapers is regarded as being between 1860, when taxes were removed, and 1910. But as we moved into the 20th, radio, film reels and then television became of increasing importance. It is largely to this era that those of us living now look back for comparison.


Throughout the latter part of  the 20th century there was a variety of newspapers to choose from, most with varying declared political affiliations.  At the same time, news on the radio or the television was generally expected to be ‘impartial’ and to deliver information without biased comment or opinion. Newspapers on the Left included The Daily Worker (founded in 1930 by the Communist Party of Great Britain, renamed in 1966 as The Morning Star and still published under this name today), the Daily Mirror and The Guardian, also both still published. The Financial Times, to the surprise I suspect of those who don’t read it, is in the centre. On the Right there is The Daily Telegraph, the Daily Mail, The Sun, and the Daily Express. The Times has a slightly ambiguous position as a long-standing newspaper of record and thus is supposed to be unbiased, but is generally regarded as having drifted right since its purchase in 1981 by Rupert Murdoch. So, in their own way all these newspapers addressed the needs of their readers to have their own biases confirmed, their opinions corroborated and on occasion their prejudices whipped up.


What is new in the 21st century is the way in which our interaction with social media is increasingly removing general news reporting from the public forum and pushing ‘news’ into categories of interest determined not by journalists, whose job it was and is to investigate and report on news,  but by algorithms and AI. Subjects which appear to interest individuals are thrust at them, with different items being directed at others. Effectively general news is replaced by ‘items of interest’.


In an interesting article in The Economist, the writer draws attention to the way in which fewer people are nowadays using social media to post details of the trivia in their own lives, and how more and more are becoming passive consumers of information fed to them via algorithms which have determined the items of interest to them. Even Facebook (20 years old this year – doesn’t it seem like a lot longer?) is ceasing to be a place where we tell our friends and acquaintances, with accompanying photos, the trivial details of our mostly mundane lives (we have just baked some fresh bread; acquired a new puppy; got a parking ticket or are currently lounging on a beach somewhere) and has instead become a series of videos created by organisations which the algorithms have determined will/might trigger our interest. Whether that interest is animal rescue, vegan recipes or scrap yard challenges, there will be a video to match. If, as is so often the case, the viewer shows no interest in current affairs or politics then there will be no feeds relating to that. In the relatively recent past, it was the case that newspapers with different political leanings would report news differently, but they would mostly be reporting the same events, even if that was in greater or lesser detail and with a different slant. Advertising and different features would be targeted to appeal to the different readership. Nowadays, when almost no-one buys a daily newspaper or even watches the television news, where does that leave people getting any updates on what is actually happening around the world?


This may not appear to some to be a problem. It can be pointed out, quite truthfully, that echo chambers have always existed and that this is simply in the nature of human beings. The big difference now is the increased polarisation of views and the lack of live debate between real people. As the young, in particular, live increasingly through the medium of the internet, of virtual reality and of social media apps the opportunity for live debate and discussion has decreased. It has been replaced by Instagram, X (formerly known as Twitter), by Tik Tok, Telegram and others. In schools and universities, which used to be the places to foster such things, debate and discussion are under threat as cancel culture has proliferated. Students have retreated into “safe spaces” where they do not have to encounter opinions with which they disagree or listen to anything of “an upsetting nature”.  Those who have the temerity to express opinions which are not in tune with very vocal minorities of students and strident academics cannot simply have a good-natured discussion to put across their point of view and see if they can sway those with differing views. They must be made to conform or “disappear”. If they can find a like-minded group then they can hide within that and confirm their own prejudices and, in many cases, anger or even misery.


Add to this lethal mix the existence of what Donald Trump loves to refer to, not always accurately , as “fake news” and one is left with a picture of contemporary society which is not very healthy. There is a great deal of mistrust, a lot of disbelief, a worrying number of young adults with ‘anxiety’ (which somehow, instead of simply being one of the emotions which humans are prey to, has become medicalised to the point of being labelled a disability), the bureaucratisation of victimhood and vast numbers of people living inside their own little bubbles. Is there any way out of this mess? Is it only going to get worse as the onward march of AI, virtual reality and the domination of the workplace by robots and robotics denies numbers of people a useful role and participation in society? Is the fragmentation destined to get worse? Black against White; young against old; disadvantaged against privileged; disabled (of all stripes) against healthy; jobless against employed; Islamists against Christians (or the rest of the world); immigrants against nationals; migrants against refugees. The list goes on and it is an international, not a national problem.


Suggestions have been made recently that those under 16 should not have access to social media given the evident harm it can do and the way in which it can link up those like the young murderers of Brianna Ghey. Such people have always existed, but their propensity for evil has been restrained or contained by the limitations of their social circles and lack of access to material to inflame or exacerbate their base inclinations. The internet is an educational tool, a source of entertainment and a dangerous weapon, and we should, as adults, at the very least be prepared as Celia Walden points out, to acknowledge that and prevent children from having access to it. It is hard to know whether, now that the genie is out of the bottle, it can be returned, but this is perhaps something to be considered. In fact, if we are to move on from this phase in our history, it is education which we need to engage on our side. Instead of teaching our children that so many of them are victims, we need them to learn to believe in and make the best of themselves, but at the same time to be able to listen to and discuss and debate with others. We need the return of the coffee houses. Social media in its current form is not, as The Economist writer would like it to be, the coffee house culture of today. That we have yet to find. In order to do so we need to re-learn the art of civilised debate and lose our current polarisations and emphasis on victimhood and its antithesis, bullying.


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