In “Escape the echo chamber”, C Thi Nguyen differentiates between echo chambers, which are robust social structures that occur when you don’t trust people from the “other side”, and epistemic bubbles, which are easily shattered informational networks from which relevant voices have been excluded by omission — i.e., you don’t hear people from the “other side”. Several studies either reaffirm the existence of social media echo chambers or challenge the scope of their influence. In popular discourse, these chambers are viewed as social products of platforms that architect polarisation and in turn amplify narrow beliefs within closed networks. This is to say that they are viewed negatively, as they hinder social progress by obstructing a free-flow of ideas between individual users who harbour divergent ideological viewpoints. The answer to who or what creates the echo chamber is seen as a mix of collective behaviour, i.e. the way we are simply wired to act in certain social circumstances, and technical affordances, i.e. the environment that social media platforms create, which foster such social dynamics in new and evolving ways.
Expressions of feminist and socio-political thought are deemed susceptible to chambering, hence weakening the legitimacy of these expressions as genuine reflections of reality in the public sphere. Here, I want to focus on feminist expression and view it from the lens of non-men’s relational dynamics with men. The way we currently view both echo chambers — based on trust, and epistemic bubbles — based on acknowledgement, do not adequately take into account the agency wielded by non-men. The creation of echo chambers and epistemic bubbles involves a degree of conscious decision-making for the purpose of creating safe spaces for community interaction, expressing authentic thoughts without the fear or inhibition, and the exchange of experiences, ideas, and emotions that are suppressed by the skewed power dynamics between non-men and men in physical spaces. In this way, the echo chamber allows for an enhanced free-flow of ideas instead of an obstruction of the same.
The invalidation of experiences of non-men is well documented, from historical descriptions of hysteria to modern accounts of keyboard social justice warriors. Spaces which subvert this power dynamic by disallowing men from participation in conversations around these experiences and assertions of non-male identities can be viewed as echo chambers, inasmuch as this exclusion is based on a lack of trust, and epistemic bubbles, in cases where the perspectives of men are wholly disregarded. This phenomenon does not hinder social progress — it furthers it by allowing historically oppressed demographics to construct virtual safe spaces, which while not free from the surveillance present in the pubic sphere of the internet, are shielded by the social dynamic of the echo chamber. While dialogue between non-men and men serves a crucial function in bringing about social progress, so does the catharsis and empowerment that cannot occur under the gaze of men.
Of course, echo chambers can just as well be created by men who reject feminist beliefs, for example the MGTOW (Men Going Their Own Way) and incel communities. Even regressive feminist beliefs, such as those that reject the intersections of race, caste, or gender identity find homes in their own echo chambers. So the chamber itself is not a tool for social progress — this social construct in a vacuum cannot be judged as negative or positive. Instead, it is the use of the echo chamber by oppressed and marginalised communities that gives it its value, and demands a revisit to our understanding of this social phenomenon.