A man uses his phone on a street in Causeway Bay, Hong Kong. Photo: Sun Yeung
by Angus Chan
by Angus Chan

Can the coronavirus crisis break Hongkongers out of their echo chambers?

  • The information explosion is having an impact on young media consumers, who are more likely to be stuck in echo chambers. To break this pattern, young people should come into contact with different sections of society and diverse views

As the coronavirus epidemic continues to disrupt daily life, people are turning to the internet to exchange information and stay connected. Most of these exchanges are benign, but in some corners of the internet, people with a certain political affiliation are not only blaming the outbreak on other people but are also inclined to see their misfortunes as karma.

Ideological echo chambers are nothing new, of course, but the advent of the internet has greatly amplified their reach and power. These online echo chambers, along with fake news, are believed to have led to an increasingly polarised society – and, around the world, it has proven hard to break people out of their political bubbles.

But how exactly do these echo chambers influence how young people see the world? With the rise of the internet, there is arguably more information available than ever before. Yet, there are also more concerns that people are clustering in online echo chambers.

As the argument goes, the crowded media environment made possible by the internet means that individuals are free to select information according to their personal preference, thereby reinforcing existing views and beliefs and causing the individual to overestimate the proportion of the general population holding the same views as them.

The information explosion has probably had a more serious impact on young people, as they are among the most adept users of the internet. In a study conducted in 2019, 45 per cent of young people aged 18 to 24 in 10 developed countries said their first contact with news in the morning was through their smartphone; specifically, 26 per cent would be getting their morning news from social media via a smartphone.

In Hong Kong, 89.2 per cent of young people between the ages of 15 and 24 get their news online. This reliance on the internet and social media, however, means that young people are more likely to be stuck in echo chambers.

One example of this can be found in Taiwan. When MWYO visited various youth organisations there in January, it was apparent to us that they cared deeply about LGBT rights.

Is there a cure to the virus of fake news and echo chambers?

Although Taiwan became the first in Asia to legalise same-sex marriage in 2019, many of the young Taiwanese we spoke to expressed disappointment and shock at the fact that voters had overwhelmingly opposed same-sex marriage in a referendum in 2018.

Their reactions would seem understandable, given that surveys carried out before and after the referendum suggested that most Taiwanese support equal marriage rights for heterosexual and homosexual couples.

But why was there such a discrepancy between the results of the surveys and the referendum? There was perhaps an echo-chamber effect at work here. The surveys showing a majority in support of equal marriage rights were all conducted online, then read by young people online.

Correlation neglect suggests that young people will overvalue the results of online surveys and reach mistaken conclusions about public opinion.

It is not difficult to see how overconfidence in the universalness of one’s world view might have devastating consequences. In assuming that society shares the same view, one becomes more likely to adhere to an extreme ideology and take radical action.

Three lessons for Hong Kong from Taiwan’s LGBT journey

They are also more likely to attribute differences in ideology to anything other than their information being incorrect, which makes it more difficult to engage with people who disagree with them.

It must, however, be stressed that the problem with modern-day echo chambers is not a refusal to access conflicting information per se. Indeed, research has found that most internet users, regardless of ideological preferences, have a balanced media diet.

People who adhere to more extreme political ideologies are even more likely than the average internet user to visit sites with conflicting views. This suggests that, to break up echo chambers, it is not enough to simply encourage young people to obtain information from different sources.

Attention should be directed towards the increasing polarisation of information sources. Over the years, more and more media outlets traditionally regarded as broadly neutral have been accused of favouritism.

Nowhere is this more obvious than in Hong Kong, where every TV channel or newspaper seems to have one political slant or another. Without a reputable institution providing facts that all sides can agree on, dialogue becomes more difficult.

What’s good journalism? When it agrees with you

Young people should be encouraged to explore issues first-hand and judge for themselves. Indeed, in Taiwan, young people have established many organisations to take action on social and political issues. These establishments allow youth to come into contact with different sections of society, and take into account a multitude of opinions and interests. In this age of division and animosity, it feels like a step in the right direction.

The coronavirus outbreak has also broken up echo chambers to a certain extent. As people scramble for masks and other essential supplies, they have been gathering information from sources beyond their usual media diet.

While this diversification is mostly functional, it reminds us that, in a crisis, we all have the same needs and fears.

Angus Chan is an associate researcher at MWYO, an independent think tank that focuses on youth issues in Hong Kong