The echo chamber echoes back

After I blamed blogosphere lefties for leading me astray, the readers let me have it.


Andrew Leonard
November 12, 2004 1:30AM (UTC)

Imagine my reaction last week, when, after writing a column in which I mused about the psychological dangers of hanging out in the self-reinforcing communities made possible by the Internet, I was immediately barraged by supportive e-mail from readers telling me that they had gone through exactly the same mental process as I had in the aftermath of Election Day 2004. Now, like me, they were swearing off their addiction to political blogs. Now, like me, they were determined to figure out how Republicans had managed to expand their majorities in the House and Senate, not to mention win the presidency by almost 4 million votes.

That's a bit too much irony even for my postmodern tastes. I was trying to smash my way through the walls of the echo chamber, and guess what? So was everybody else! And we all told each other how brilliant our self-analysis was, which made us feel good, and yada yada yada.

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Sometimes you just have to log off.

But not quite yet, because I also received many e-mails taking issue with the final paragraph of my piece, in which I wrote:

"I really think I need to get out more, now. Perhaps if I'd spent less time at Daily Kos and more time talking to people who live in Alabama I'd have been less surprised by the election results. And perhaps I'd be better prepared to deal with them."

Quite a few people, expressing themselves in the gentle, restrained discourse so typical of online correspondence, took the opportunity to purge themselves of their post-election despair by pointing out what an idiot I must be to imagine that any amount of "reaching out" to homophobic, creation-science believing, towel-head hating red staters would in any way be therapeutic or otherwise helpful to the Democratic cause.

I am going to take the high road and forgive all those readers who misunderstood me. It's just remotely possible that after getting about two hours of restless sleep on Election Night, and then hastily writing a column in the midst of a dazed and confused fog early the following morning, I didn't express myself as I lucidly as I would like. So let me make myself perfectly clear. I am no cultural relativist: I think the voters who chose Bush to be their president made a huge mistake that will have dire results for all Americans. And I'm not trying to "reach out" -- I have very little confidence that any amount of engagement with hardcore anti-same-sex-marriage, anti-choice, pro-war-in-Iraq true believers will lead me to accept their point of view or lead them to accept mine.

I do believe, however, that there is a middle ground that can go either way, and that is where the battle for hearts and minds has to be fought. But that is precisely what it is: a battle, and I want my side to win. The point I was trying to make is that hanging out in online communities of identically minded partisans can have the not immediately obvious impact of decreasing one's fighting efficiency, by blinding oneself to the realities that need to be confronted.

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Perhaps a concrete example will help. In the pre-Internet era, if I had picked up a copy of Newsweek a week before an election and read that Candidate X had pulled ahead of Candidate Y, I would have thought, hmm, that's interesting, and been either elated or appalled or otherwise affected, and that would have been that. But taking issue with it would have been difficult. Sure, I could have called up some experts in polling and done some legwork, but who's got time for that?

Today, the situation is quite different. I go to my favorite lefty blogger, who more likely than not has already posted a link to an expert deconstruction of whatever poll is pissing me off or terrifying me that day. And even if there isn't an obvious link, if I dig down into the comments section, I am sure to find someone spinning the news in a way that makes it palatable. The Web is fabulous for providing 24-7 instant analysis, context and historical data to bolster any argument, to shore up any sagging ideological rampart.

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As I noted last week, there are some great advantages to this new world. Like thousands of others, I learned more about polling methodologies and the flaws thereof this year than I have throughout the entire rest of my life. I have learned which polls are biased, which have a good track record, which are relevant, and which are not. I would never want to go back to the way things were before. Now, everyone has the resources to at least start being a reporter, to get up to speed quickly on complex topics. That's a good thing.

But what took me aback, and what embarrasses me greatly, is the ease with which I fell for the seduction of the echo chamber -- how I would stop my investigations after finding the answer I wanted. After my morning spin through the blogosphere I could explain away anything I liked.

As a technology reporter, I know that my reporting is always strengthened by exposure to as many differing arguments and possible explanations that I can find of whatever it is I am investigating. But as a political partisan I found myself wallowing in the warm embrace of a community that would support me in believing what I wanted to believe.

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I agree with many of the readers who wrote in to point out that the left needs its own headquarters and rallying points -- that echo chambers serve a purpose in boosting morale and planning strategy. And I understand the point that some of you made with respect to the right-wing echo chamber -- you don't see conservatives complaining about the self-reinforcing effects of Fox News and the right-wing blogosphere. If it works for them, why won't it work for us?

Except that, in the long run, I don't think it will work for them. You can deny global warming is happening all you want, but when your seaside home starts to submerge, you'll have to face reality, eventually. Or you can pretend that democracy is being spread right now in Iraq and that this will help defeat terrorism -- but maybe we should check back in a few years and see how it all worked out. You can run up huge deficits, and allow wealth disparities between the rich and the poor continue to rise, and claim that the free market will solve all the problems, but sooner or later, economic mismanagement will come around to kick you in the ass.

Right now, Salon's readers are taking great issue with our reporting suggesting that the presidential election wasn't stolen. While I acknowledge that the American election system has problems that have to be fixed, when I look at this particular election, that is the least of my worries. This election wasn't just about the presidency. In case after case, in races for the House and Senate, Republicans representing the extreme right wing of the party won election -- in many instances, replacing moderate Republicans who were no longer running for office. That points to something fundamental happening to the political fabric of America, and no amount of telling each other that the election was hacked is going to help us deal with that.

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Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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2004 Elections

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